02/28/2023, 11.59
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Abu Dhabi, St Francis Church a 'contagious, vibrant and enlightening' symbol of fraternity

by Dario Salvi

Msgr Gaid, former secretary to the pope, is responsible for the place of worship inaugurated inside the 'House of the Abrahamic Family'. Open also 'to other Christian communities', it aims to be a reference point for the local community composed largely of migrants. The pontiff's "tireless" work on dialogue with Sunnis, Shiites and Jews and the fight "against the haemorrhaging" of Christians in the Middle East.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Tomorrow the first group of visitors is expected inside the "Abrahamic Family Home" in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a complex founded on inter-religious dialogue and consisting of a church, a mosque and a synagogue.

The centre was inaugurated over the weekend of 17-19 February, in the presence of leading figures from the three great monotheistic religions involved in the project - Catholics, Muslims and Jews - the first fruit of Pope Francis' historic visit in February 2019.

The space is linked to the personal relationship built over the years by Pope Francis and Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Imam of Egypt's al-Azhar University, a point of reference for Sunni Islam.

Its inauguration was attended by Eau institutional figures including Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, and Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence.

From the Vatican, the pope sent as his personal representative Card. Michael Lewis Fitzgerald, Card. Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Msgr. Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, formerly his personal secretary, president of the Foundation for Human Brotherhood and head of the Church of St. Francis in the House of Abraham.

"There would be no 'House of the Abrahamic Family' if there were no church, and it was Pope Francis who wanted to dedicate it to the poor man of Assisi," Msgr. Yoannis Lahzi Gaid tells AsiaNews, explaining the value of the work.

He explains tha the name is linked to the saint "whose name he himself bears" because Saint Francis "is the saint of universal brotherhood, of peace, of encounter, of reconciliation and of the custody of creation".

Moreover, it is "on these values" that it was built, recalling also that the pontiff's journey was intended to "commemorate the 800th anniversary of the meeting that took place in 1219 in Egypt between Saint Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kāmil". "An encounter that, after eight centuries, does not cease to question, inspire and enlighten us", recalls Msgr Gaid, "in interreligious dialogue".

Inspired by Human Fraternity

The church of St Francis, one of the three buildings, is the first tangible result of the journey begun with the document on 'Fraternity' signed by the pope and the imam. A Christian, a Muslim and a Jewish place of worship built next to each other, in a common space, while maintaining a distinct identity and respecting differences.

All are equal in size and height and embody the common denominators of the three Abrahamic faiths, the work of architect David Adjaye: the mosque faces Mecca, the Church looks east while the Synagogue points towards Jerusalem, with an internal garden connecting the three structures and reflecting their symbolism.

On the occasion of the church's inauguration ceremony, the pope sent a video message in which he recalled how faith must nourish "respect and peace", never violence, adversity or war.

The Imam of al-Azhar, also in a video, recalled how the house is a faithful translation of the provisions of the document, which calls for tolerance and coexistence, freedom of belief and the protection of places of worship.

Finally, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in Great Britain and the Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis, present at the event spoke of a "historic day" and a "historic building" because "it unites us in the love of God [...] cancelling the grounds for division".

A 'vibrant' church

Msgr. Paolo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of South Arabia, and Bishop Emeritus Msgr. Paul Hinder were also present at the inauguration of the Church of St. Francis,which will not be "an empty symbol," adds Msgr. Gaid.

On the contrary, it is intended to be 'contagious, vibrant and enlightening'. It will serve the Catholic community of Abu Dhabi for masses and liturgical prayers, but "other Christian communities" will also be welcomed inside.

The Pope's close collaborator says it aims to be a "contagious" place because it is capable of attracting "thousands and thousands of people to rediscover the beautiful figure of Saint Francis and follow in his footsteps".

It will also be a place that is "vibrant" because it is a centre "of dialogue, knowledge and mutual respect".

And "enlightening" because it "turns on the light in a dark moment of history. We only hear about pandemics, wars, earthquakes and economic and moral crises and we need - he warns - to see a concrete project that speaks to us of coexistence and peace."

On the subject of the faithful, it will welcome pilgrims from all over the world, but it is intended above all for the local faithful who live in Abu Dhabi or the Emirates.

"It is very important," recalls Msgr Gaid, "to support the large Christian community formed by workers who live and work" in the Gulf, "some for a short time and others for a long time. Some of the faithful are second-generation children, of parents who have moved and settled. It must be remembered here that there are more than 200 different nationalities living in the Emirates and it is a country where everyone can exercise their faith freely'.

The House of Abraham is the firstborn, but there are other initiatives connected to the document as the pontiff's secretary recalls: 'The High Committee for Human Fraternity; the UN recognition of the International Day for Human Fraternity marking the day the document was signed, 4 February; the Zayed Award for Fraternity. The establishment of the Bambino Gesù Association in Cairo and the Human FraternityFoundation, which are overseeing the construction of an orphanage, a hospital and a school for the disabled. These two organisations are working to transform the "concept of fraternity" into concrete works "to welcome, assist and help 'needy brothers and sisters."

A journey of dialogue

Underlying the document on Human Fraternity and the Church of Saint Francis is the "tireless" work of dialogue promoted by Pope Francis, a "fundamental pillar" of his pontificate, adds Msgr. Gaid.

"An open, loyal and sincere dialogue," he continues, "which is based on truth" and is founded on the principles outlined in the speech at al-Azhar University: the duty of identity, the courage of otherness and the sincerity of intentions.

"In this context," the prelate emphasised, "one can understand the interreligious dialogue with the Sunni Muslim world and the numerous trips" he has made "to the Holy Land, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Iraq and the most recent one to Bahrain."

All this has brought numerous tangible fruits and will certainly bring even more important ones". Moreover, the Pontiff himself is fond of saying that "the only alternative to the civilisation of encounter is the incivility of confrontation" and this is also true with the Shiite and Jewish worlds.

With the Shiite world, the relationship "is very good" as emerged from the trip to Iraq and the meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani, at the same time acting as a "bridge between Shiites and Sunnis". The same goes for the Jewish world, "our elder brothers as Francis said in the Synagogue of Rome on 17 January 2016".

Lastly, Mgr. Gaid dedicates a final passage to the anti-Christian persecutions and the diaspora from the countries of origin in the Middle East: "As an Egyptian," he concludes, "I can affirm that the haemorrhaging of Christians will never be stopped without the courage of those who open new paths and kindle new lights."


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