Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the world’s more than 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, was on Sunday night due to land in the UAE — the first Catholic pope to do so. This is an occasion of regional and global significance, which just a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
Francis’ three immediate predecessors visited Israel and Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity. His two immediate predecessors visited Jordan, which is counted as part of the Holy Land. John Paul II (who traveled more widely than any other Pope) visited Syria and Lebanon (both home to significant Christian populations), Egypt (where Jesus spent his early years as a refugee, and which is now home to 10 to 20 million Christians), Tunisia and Morocco. Francis himself has visited Egypt, Jordan, Israel
So why is the Pope’s visit to the UAE significant? First is the lack of a historic connection with Christianity or the Catholic Church. The UAE does have ancient ruined churches, such as the Nestorian Monastery at Sir Bani Yas, abandoned around 750 AD. There is well-established evidence of Christian communities throughout the Arabian Peninsula before the coming of Islam, attested to by the site of an ancient cathedral in Sanaa, Yemen, and other archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But, much like the monastery on Sir Bani Yas, after Islam spread across the peninsula, the institutional presence of Christianity faded away.
Thus it remained until the early 19th century, when the British arrived on the peripheries of the peninsula, bringing churches for the troops and administrators and, in some cases, bringing missionaries. The end of
It’s that second point that brings the Pope. According to the statistics of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia (the administrative structure of the Catholic churches in the UAE, Oman
But there is a third, and arguably much more significant, element in the Papal visit, one that is only in part to do with the Catholic Church. That is the trend toward religious tolerance in the Peninsula. The UAE has been pursuing this path for many years, under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan, but it is not alone. Other countries in the Peninsula have been doing the same. Some years ago, I worked at a church in Yemen: An old garrison church reopened in Aden in the early 1990s following the country’s unification.
Saudi Arabia, too, is making steps in this direction for its non-Muslim residents. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made a point of visiting religious leaders — particularly Christian leaders — on his international visits. He recently invited the Coptic Pope to send a bishop to celebrate a Mass inside the country. Saudi Arabia will move slowly; there are many obstacles to overcome before it could provide the sort of environment for the religions of migrant workers that can be found in the UAE. But it is moving.
The fact is that globalization is changing the calculation both for religious and political leaders. Countries like the UAE don’t have an economy based on tourism (though there is plenty of it); it is based on business. Saudi Arabia may be oil-rich, but it is diversifying its economy and, even as it reduces the number of migrant workers in jobs that could be performed by Saudis, it still needs to attract workers from elsewhere. One of the features of a globalized economy is
But it is more than an economic decision. Sheikh Zayed’s wisdom in the UAE was that it was no stain on the country’s Islamic character to have a policy of tolerance toward the faith of non-Muslim residents; in fact, it was a duty of hospitality. This is a message that is still taking root.
Globalization affects religious leaders too. Before the 1960s, Roman Catholic popes didn’t travel a great deal, or very far, at least not willingly (the first pope to travel out of Rome was Clement I, in 99AD, but he traveled in chains to his martyrdom). This changed partly in response to the fact that the Catholic Church was no longer a European church, but rather a global one. Where large numbers of Christians are found, one can expect global Christian leaders to go.
Globalization brings with it a great many problems, including how to maintain national identity and culture. It brings economic