04/18/2019, 09.37
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Abu Dhabi, Islamic-Christian dialogue after the Pope's visit

by Bernardo Cervellera

Two months after the signing of the important document on "Human Fraternity", the "House of the Abrahamic family" and a fund to finance cultural activities on coexistence were founded.  The search for a tolerant Islam, which avoids Wahhabism and Western liberalism.  The pontiff has aroused much curiosity among Muslims.  But there are still situations of violence and humiliation towards Christian workers.


Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) - More than two months ago, Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi, in the Emirates, the first Pope to set foot on the Arabian peninsula.  On 4 February, together with the great imam of Al Azhar, Ahmad Mohammed Al Tayyib, they signed an important document for Islamic-Christian dialogue on the "Human Fraternity" (photo 3).  Abu Dhabi Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and Dubai Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE vice president were present as witnesses. 

Among the most revolutionary statements - taking into account the situation of this part of the Islamic world - is that of common human dignity, of equal rights and duties for every man and woman, on the right to full citizenship even for minorities.

The place were the signature took lace is the Memorial to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, father of the homeland, founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates and a great supporter of interreligious dialogue.  It is thanks to him - and later, to his son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, the current ruler - that the different religions have received land and permits to build churches, temples, schools that serve the different communities present in the territory:  Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Baha'is, ...

I visited the Memorial on a torrid Abu Dhabi afternoon (photo 2), with a temperature that reaches 35 degrees in April.  I am welcomed by a garden with different plants and above all with ghaf trees in quantity: they are desert trees, used by the Bedouin nomads for the shade, for the edible leaves and also used to cure some diseases, as if to remember the past of the  deceased emir and his population.  The memorial under which the signature took place stands out as a set of pure geometric shapes - "Platonic", says the guide - from its roof rays of light and other geometric shapes descend,  from a distance take the shape of the face of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan  al Nahyan.  The interplay of ancient and modern says something of the journey the nation has traveled: in just 50 years it has gone from a Bedouin life to a modern and vibrant country, from tents in the desert to skyscrapers surrounded by gardens.  But nothing, not even a sign, recalls that time of February 4th.  On the other hand, the videos available to visitors introduce the personality of the deceased emir, his ecumenical opening, his respect for other religions and peoples.

Celebrating tolerance

It is also true that to commemorate the papal visit, and the signing of the document, Prince Zayed gave orders for the construction of an "Abrahamic family house" and established a "Zayed global coexistence fund", which should finance "cultural activities and peaceful coexistence and fraternity between individuals and peoples ".

 A few days before the Pope's visit, the government published a book with text and photos on "Celebrating Tolerance".  In it, each community recounts how, thanks to the benevolence of the emir, they have received free land to build their church or temple, as well as support and appreciation for the contribution they make to the development of the nation.  On the other hand, a country made up of 80% immigrants, could not only ask them for work and technical qualities, without also satisfying their religious needs.  Of course, all this is more a gesture of benevolence of power than the recognition of a right, but compared to other countries in the region, it is a huge step forward.  After all, the Emirates have long struggled to find their way to an Islam, which avoids Wahhabi radicalism and Western liberalism.

The impression is that the invitation to Pope Francis is an attempt to reinforce the message of a "moderate" Islam, which coexists side by side with other religious communities, even with those that radical Muslims call "pagan" (like the  Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs) and destined for destruction.  But the fear is that February will remain a mere exercise in PR, to enhance global esteem for the Emirates and bring more tourists to these coasts, now that oil is not the only source of the wealth of this land.

Msgr. Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of southern Arabia, is convinced of the good faith of political leaders.  In all the meetings he had with them, he acknowledged they were receptive and listened to the problems of the Catholic community.  He also speaks of the personal commitment of the president's son, Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, when the bishop - days before the Pope's arrival - descrobed the difficulties that the few Catholics in Yemen, in all nine, faced in trying to come  in Abu Dhabi to attend the Pope's Mass.  In a short space of time the prince managed  to organize an airlift with military aircraft to take these Christians from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, to Abu Dhabi, offered them hospitality in a five-star hotel, gave them money to spend and brought them back to Yemen at the end of the papal visit.

Working side by side

Muslims and Christians hardly meet from a religious point of view.  But at work the contact is obvious and everyday.  Roberto, an Italian engineer who has been in the Emirates for years, says that since the Pope came, his Muslim colleagues - especially Egyptians and Pakistanis - have been bombarding him with questions to understand more about the Christian faith, the rites of Holy Week, the Bible.  In short, the Pope aroused curiosity and interest in the faith of Christians.  Fr. Tanios, who also speaks Arabic, confirms: the visit of Pope Francis has given way to a vision of a Christianity that is not linked to the journalism so widespread in the Eastern world, of Christians as "crusaders", instruments of the power of the West, corrupt.  The priest says: "They tell me: So you Christians are not as bad as our textbooks or religious authorities paint you!"  In fact, in the textbooks of schools in the Middle East there are easy judgments against Christians, enemies of Islam, Arab nationalism, colonialists, etc.

Precisely for this reason, in the document on Human Fraternity, the signatories committed themselves to spreading the new and deeper vision of the document in schools, universities, all centers of culture and politics.

To spread the culture of tolerance and encounter, this commitment in the world of education is urgent, so close to everyday problems.  Because it is precisely in everyday life that the lowest violations of human dignity and faith occur.  Several Filipino and African women, employed as domestic workers, cannot withhold their tears as they recount teh suffering they are subjected to at the hands of their emplyers: treated as slaves, often abused, forced to work up to 20 hours a day, without even the free day they are entitled to by law, the day  in which they would like to come and pray in the church made available by the benevolence of the Emir.

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