The ecstatic applause with which the 1,50,000-strong, demographically diverse congregation greeted Pope Francis’s expression of gratitude to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was a special moment during the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. A huge Catholic crowd hailing a Muslim ruler for making possible the largest ever gathering of Christians in the peninsula was momentous. They were grateful for the bold and arguably ‘iconoclastic’ decision by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to invite the Pope. It is worth noting that the UAE has no Christian citizenry, but hosts millions of expatriates belonging to that faith. A middle-aged woman from Goa wished to personally thank the Crown Prince and said Catholics the world over would remember with gratitude his gesture. “When Christian minorities struggle for survival in several countries in the region in the face of brutal persecution, His Highness went out of his way to facilitate this confluence of faiths. May God bless him and his brothers for their magnanimity,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. A 70-year-old Syrian Christian from Kerala who lived in the UAE for over 40 years chipped in: “This is possible only in the UAE. My uncle was present when the first church in Abu Dhabi was consecrated in 1965 in the presence of the then ruler. Emiratis always walk ahead of the rest in the region, and don’t mind swimming against the current, be it in matters of the economy, technology or interfaith interaction.”
“In the name of God, Al-Azhar al-Sharif and Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and Catholics of the East and West, declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard,” said the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, jointly signed by the Pope and Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the oldest seat of Islamic learning. “History shows that religious extremism, national extremism and intolerance have produced…what might be referred to as signs of a third world war being fought piecemeal,” stressed the Pope and the Imam.