Why the pope’s UAE visit matters to us

On February 5, Pope Francis held a historic mass in Abu Dhabi. This visit coincided with the pope’s signing, along with with Sheikh Al Azhar, Ahmed al Tayyeb, a document committed to building “Human Fraternity.” This gathering of the western and Arab world’s most prominent religious leaders was preceded by a 2-day “Conference on Human Fraternity” that brought together 600 religious leaders and influencers including Christians of all denominations, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Our president, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb was one of few religious leaders from Palestine invited to this important event.

Here are his reflections-

The pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates should not be underestimated. His signing of the ‘Human Fraternity’ Document with Sheikh al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in the Arab world, is significant. It was the first papal visit to the gulf region. The mass was the largest public gathering to take place in the country, with over 35,000 in attendance inside the stadium and over 100,000 gathered outside. Both religious leaders delivered bold and timely messages, given the current context of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

For us at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture, the conference that preceded the signing of the document provided a key opportunity to meet many of the 600 international and influential religious leaders. Many of these leaders are our friends and partners. The event is important for our work on two ways. First, in 2014 we launched our own document “From the Nile to the Euphrates: The call for Faith and Citizenship.” This document calls on Christian and Muslim academics to engage in their communities and work towards society where all members have equal citizenship. Five years later, we are encouraged to see this “Human Fraternity” document, building on the same ideas.

Second, two years ago we launched a network of Christian seminaries and Muslim religious colleges. The first of its kind, this network challenges religious faculty to engage in interfaith dialogue. Thus, the event in the UAE is an important sign on this journey of strengthening Christian-Muslim relations and affirms our efforts in this regard. Still, we recognize that we have not reached our goal. Rather, we see this as an important milestone in a long journey.

Dar al-Kalima University is committed to “walk the talk” by creating the conditions for just, inclusive societies in the Middle East- societies based on genuine freedom and equal citizenship. In our upcoming conference this October, we will address the theme “Towards inclusive societies in the Middle East.” We expect to bring together 70 leading scholars from the region and beyond to work on the theological framework required for this vision. At this annual conference, participants will wrestle with issues related to religious plurality, gender justice, political diversity, and social cohesion. The event of last week was historic indeed.

But to change the course of history in the Middle East, we need to roll up our sleeves. For Bright Stars of Bethlehem, vision is action. This vision of inclusivity drives our work in Bethlehem, Palestine, the Middle East and beyond. For all who partner with us, thank you.

by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Related Article: Why the Events Surrounding Pope Francis’ UAE Visit Were So Important by Dr. James Zogby.