The UAE daily Al-Ittihad has carried the following interview with Director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Jordan Fr. Dr. Rif’at Bader on the upcoming visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to the UAE:
The visit of Pope Francis to the UAE is viewed as an important message to spread peace and tolerance around the world. How do you consider the visit?
It is a very important visit especially as it comes for the first time to an Arabian Gulf country, especially to the United Arab Emirates which plays a key role in the social, cultural, intellectual, and political fields, with particular reference to the mediation this fraternal country has undertaken to entrench security and stability in several Arab countries. We view this visit as an encouragement to the UAE to move forward in this wonderful humanitarian policy, namely by focusing on the importance and the dignity of human beings; welcoming expatriates from different ethnicities, religions and diverse religious traditions; and promoting an atmosphere of peace in the Arab countries. As the Bible says: ” Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” thus by helping the Arab countries in this good attitude demonstrated by its population, the UAE plays a role that relieves the burdens shouldered by Arab countries, especially with regards to the economic burden.
The Pope will participate in the “Human Fraternity Meeting”. How can this interfaith dialogue support fraternity between peoples and acceptance of others?
The world has witnessed the policy of exclusion in the sense of fanaticism and hatred practised by some terrorist groups that wanted to plant thorns in these societies. These thorns are the thorns of hatred, non-acceptance of others, and schism within the Arab societies. We know that political divisions exist, but in recent times the terrorist groups played a divisive role with regards to religious, sectarian, ideological and ethnic aspects. Therefore, this meeting, or this international forum which the United Arab Emirates intends to hold, serves as a means to restore what has been undermined, unfortunately by the terrorist groups, and to restore religion to its rightful and healthy status, namely to be a factor of peace among peoples rather than a factor that causes divisions.
This meeting is titled, “Human Fraternity Meeting”. With the world’s realization that all human beings are equal and that they are brothers and sisters in the view of the One Merciful God, we hope that this meeting will disseminate atmospheres of peace, cooperation, and closeness among followers of different religions in order to create an atmosphere of peace, justice, and equality, as well as to pave the way for the development of societies and of talents so that the generations to come will be assured to enjoy a bright future.
Some 900,000 Catholics live in the UAE with other religions and nationalities. How do you view the effect of this visit on the common living and integration of all those living in the UAE?
It is nice to note that all Christians in the UAE, not only Catholics, are expatriates. This is also a positive point for the state, the government, and the people. The UAE has always hosted expatriates. There has no exceptions based on ethnicity or religion, so today there is a well-organized Christian community that respects of the laws of the country and enjoys the holiest human right, namely religious freedom, or rather the freedom to practise religious rites and freedom of worship. When the state provides these freedoms to any society it ensures an atmosphere of cordiality where the society can strive to develop economically, intellectually and culturally. In this regard, there are no obstacles that stand in the way to the fulfillment of humanitarian and social duties. So, this climate will strengthen efforts to further develop the society and the country.
How do these visits and conferences contribute to building bridges between different religions leading to rapprochement?
The visit of Pope Francis, who showed openness to cooperate with all shades of humanity, is a message not only to the people of the UAE, but rather a message from the UAE to the entire world. The UAE has introduced the Ministry of Tolerance for the first time in history. Yes, there is a Ministry of Awqaf and there are ministries of religious affairs in some countries, but the launching of a ministry of tolerance is a great favor by the UAE. Furthermore, the UAE issued a law that criminalizes all forms of discrimination, protects religion and religious institutions, and bans vandalism of religious symbols, insults to God. Therefore, Pope Francis is coming to this country–that has introduced tolerance as a ministry and a way of life for the people of the UAE, as well as issued a law that criminalizes insulting religions–because respecting religions implies respecting the Creator who created humans free, noble and cooperative with others to build humanity.
I believe that the grand message of Pope Francis–the Pope of the poor, the Pope of social justice and equality among human beings, and the Pope of interfaith dialogue–will be greatly impressive not only for the UAE, for the Gulf countries, or for the Arab world, but rather for the entire world… religion is peace, and it will never be a religion if it is a cause for contention.
How do you evaluate the UAE’s undertaking this step for a visit that is the first of its kind by the Pope to the Gulf region?
The Gulf region, which has a diverse of ethnicities and religions, has taken major strides in interfaith dialogue. We also find several centers of dialogue in the gulf, which either exist as a result of national or universal initiatives. There is no doubt that the step undertaken by the UAE to invite Pope Francis is a courageous step, and it will hopefully pave the way for further cooperation and the development of diplomatic relations between the Vatican on the one hand and the Gulf countries or Middle Eastern countries on the other. The presence of the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar alongside His Holiness the Pope serves as a threshold for an advanced stage of cooperation between Muslims and Christians in the world.
After the collapse of terrorist groups in the region, especially the defeat of terrorist ISIS, this region is about to enjoy a new stage that incorporates beautiful and humane development involving cooperation between followers of religions, and between the basics of humanity–including religious basics–so that we will witness the emergence of an era of cooperation that follows the visit of Pope Francis to the fraternal and friendly UAE.