The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, knew exactly what he was doing when he invited Pope Francis to visit the Arabian Peninsula to inaugurate the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance.” The visit, which is underway now, represents a historic first in 1,400 years of Islamic history, and it is impossible to exaggerate its significance.
Never before has a sitting pontiff been invited by a Muslim ruler to visit the Peninsula which also plays host to Islam’s holiest sites of Mecca and Medina.
The visit is not taking place in the shadows, either. Pope Francis will deliver a public mass for more than 120,000 residents of the United Arab Emirates in the national stadium. That gathering, which will represent one of the largest public gatherings in the history of the Arab Sheikhdom, will be broadcast on live television throughout the entire Islamic world, as will the pope’s visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and his meetings with various religious leaders from around the world who are gathered here to commemorate his visit.
Adorning the street lights of Abu Dhabi today are two flags: the flag of UAE and the flag of the Vatican.
Meanwhile, in a profound statement to the broader Islamic world, the pope was warmly greeted upon his arrival by the Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, the oldest and most serious institution of Islamic learning in the entire Arab world.
Astonishingly, one of Saudi Arabia’s most important daily newspapers included on its front page, above-the-fold, an article entitled, “Saudi Arabia may feature in future Papal Visit.” That same Saudi newspaper also tweeted, “#PopeFrancis’s unprecedented three-day visit to the UAE will not only mark the first official papal trip … but also carries hopes with it of a new era of religious tolerance in the Gulf.”
Nearly every Arabic language paper in the entire region is featuring the visit on its front page.
All of these efforts have an obvious intention – they are meant to signal a new era in the Arab world, for a new generation that is tired of the bastardizing of their religion by extremists.
The prime minister and vice president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, put it more elegantly: “We have learned from hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees in our region that sectarian, ideological, cultural and religious bigotry only fuel the fires of rage. We cannot and will not allow this in our country. We need to study, teach and practice tolerance and instill it in our children, both through education and our own example.”
Dr. Zaki Nusseibeh, a longtime member of the government agreed, telling me recently, “It is not sufficient to talk about abstract concepts like human fraternity and peaceful coexistence, we have to do something about it.”
Many such actions are being undertaken, but one that particularly struck me was an announcement made by the noted minister of culture, Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, that the UAE would be rebuilding two churches destroyed by Daesh (ISIS) in Mosul, Iraq.
Those churches are adjacent to the very Grand Mosque where the leader of the so-called Islamic State announced his now-decimated “caliphate.” Rebuilding those churches represents a profound act of solidarity with Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community, and a demonstration of the triumph of peace over the terror that ravaged Iraq just a few years ago.
The UAE has long been a beacon of openness, freedom and tolerance in the Islamic world. Those values have emanated from its famous business and tourism cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But this week’s events have taken those efforts to another plane, entirely.
They are the fodder of history, examples of profound leadership in a turbulent time, and they deserve the commendation of the entire world. They also merit the notice of the Nobel Committee.