01/29/2019, 17.29
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Mgr Machado with Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi: The Church must go everywhere

by Felix Machado

From 3 to 5 February 2019 the pontiff will be in the Emirates for his first official visit to the Arabian Peninsula. The archbishop of Vasai describes friendships between the Great Imams of Al-Azhar and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. For him, Indian Islam is “a phenomenon by itself ".

Vasai (AsiaNews) – Mgr Felix Machado is the archbishop of Vasai and president of the Office for Ecumenism and Interfaith Affairs of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. For him, “It is not just where Catholics are that the Church must go.” The papal visit is not a waste of time. He will be in Abu Dhabi from 3 to 5 February along with the pontiff for an international interfaith meeting called Human Brotherhood. This will be the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The archbishop’s comments follow.

The visit of the Pope to UAE is very important. There are conservative and politicized voices which criticize Pope's visit, saying that it is a waste of time to invest Pope's efforts on a visit to a place where there is no native Catholic. It is not just where Catholics are that the Church must go. We must go to such places where there are no Catholics, precisely to explore the possibilities for the future. The Holy Father is investing in a precious future and he should be lauded for it. It is also a question of his universal leadership. The recent Popes have brought a lot of credibility to the Papacy and the tempo must be maintained and solid edifice of trust and confidence must be built. Pope Francis is doing that and we all Catholics and people of good will should support him. Pope Francis is the one who said that the Church must not be self-centred but must look outside of herself. That is what he is doing. 

I am Catholic Archbishop and I will be there as a Catholic Archbishop vested in Catholic Bishop's dress. But I will participate, together with leaders of other religions, especially the Muslim leaders. This group of the World Muslim Elders Council has prepared the Pope's visit and they would like that the leaders of all religions sit and reflect on how there could be peace among religions and reflect that peace in the world at large. Such initiative has come from Sunni Muslims whose leader is the Grand Imam of Al Azaar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. He will be leading this interreligious group and seek Pope's support and counsel; because Pope Francis himself is personally committed to building peace in society and the world.  

"Firstly, I must thank God for this invitation from the World Muslim Elders Council to attend the ceremonies on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis to United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi. This visit is, once again, an open statement of the Catholic Church expressing the desire to meet believers of other religions, in this case the followers of Islam. The Church has made this commitment during the Second Vatican Council and it is irreversible because it has become part of the Church's teachings. Pope Francis wants to encourage the Catholics throughout the world to continue to put into practice the teachings of the Church regarding dialogue with Muslims. There are some beautiful things the documents of the Second Vatican speak about Muslims (especially Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium).

I have not met the Council as a whole but some members of the Council know me and I have met them individually at different occasions. The Council is headed by the Grand Imam of Al Azaar. I have met the Grand Imam (who changes according to their terms). Imam Tantawi was a good friend of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue (PCID), Vatican. He was also a great scholar and leader. I met the Grand Imam twice at the Peace Meetings which the Community of Sant'Egidio organizes every year. Last October I met the Grand Imam in Bologna, Italy. The Al Azaar has a continuing dialogue with PCID. There are annual formal meetings. Much is done during these meetings which are cordial and friendly. The place of the meetings alternates between the two bodies. Pope Francis was specially invited in 2017 to Al Azaar and he has given a very good address there. That, I think, was the first time that a Pope has entered Al Azaar Mosque, the central authority of Sunni Muslims. The Grand Imam will be there in Abu Dhabi and will lead the discussions (also one day with the Holy Father) in Abu Dhabi. The theme is "peace and harmony". What is expected is some concrete acts from all religious believers towards establishing peace. My experience is that we, as Christians, cannot go with our expectations as structures are different among Muslims. The Muslims also do not accept the "binding" authority of "heads" (that is their religious understanding. Therefore, as a Christian I go with hope and open mind. One step at a time. We have to take things as they stand and what is before us. We cannot make apriory plans. Dialogue is respect and openness and therefore we allow things to happen rather than impose or keep unrealistic expectations. Dialogue is like relationships. We keep on meeting, listening, talking and hoping. We cannot give up. That is the nature of dynamics of dialogue. I see that much good has happened over the years but I have no criterion to judge "how much" or "how little"; or "good" or "bad", etc. The Church wants to build relationships and Pope Francis is doing whatever is possible to extend helping hand. Isn't that wonderful?

I have travelled several times to the Middle East. These are countries with majority Muslim populations and ruled under the law of Sharia. Islam is official religion. Therefore, the culture is very Islamic. But different parts are ruled by different rulers and under different systems. E.g. Bahrain is not Saudi Arabia and UAE is not Bahrain. Actually, the Sheikhs are ruling these countries and therefore they are the rulers. They are Muslims but they also are rulers by their own rights. Aware that they have petrol but need manpower they welcome immigrants (only to do the work but not to become permanent citizens). They are good to the immigrants but on their own terms. So, one who accepts to go there to work must remain totally under their rule and administration. So, one can hardly speak of "human rights" as one would speak in democratic countries. The Muslims are late comers to dialogue but they have been open throughout the world. Obviously, where they are majority, as I wrote above, they impose their laws. They have the petrol which the world needs and they call the shots. But, my experiences with Muslims have been that of friendship and cordiality. They are wonderful people when we take them for who they think they are. In Europe and America, the Muslims tend to be more open and friendly.

I think we must emphasize that the Indian Islam is a brand in itself. We have had great leaders from this community and the world praises the openness of Indian Muslims. The students of Islam study Indian Islam as a phenomenon by itself. There are also divisions among Muslims (Sunni, Shia, Bohra, and other smaller groups, sometimes not enjoying good relations among themselves).

God bless you.

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