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Pope's visit to UEA a stepping stone to Mecca?

Pope Francis is welcomed by Vice-President of the UAE and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi 4 February, 2019.
Pope Francis is welcomed by Vice-President of the UAE and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi 4 February, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Pope Francis has arrived in the United Arab Emirates on the first visit by a Catholic leader to the Arab Peninsula. He attended an interfaith meeting in Abu Dhabi on Monday as part of his outreach to Muslims, but will the pontiff's historic sojourn take him a step closer to Mecca?

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Reaction to the pope's visit has been largely positive, not just from the one million Catholics who live in the Emirates (mostly foreign workers from India and the Philippines) but also by the four-fifths Muslim population.

“It’s of huge significance,” says Riad Khawaji, director of the Dubai-based think tank Inegma. “The Pope is in the Arabian Peninsula for the first time ever, attending a grand conference on the theme of tolerance, plus religion."

Turbulence

“He is here at the same time as one the most senior clerics of the Arab World, the Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, so this meeting of civilisations at a time of turbulence across the world gives great meaning to...the position of the UAE and the big changes we’ve seen in the Arab world, especially in the Arab Gulf countries,” he says.

It is not the first time that the pope has visited the Middle East. In 2014 he made a well-publicised trip to Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

“We are critical of the Catholics where we need to be critical,” says Yaakov Katz, who is with the School of Education at the Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

“But we are also able to be pragmatic and to understand the help that they can give when we are talking about peace."

Flashpoints

”If they can make an effort and can do something that is concrete and can bring about a peaceful solution to the different flashpoints in the world, including in the Middle East, between Israel and the Palestinians, and some of the neighbours, then we are welcoming the Catholic point of view."

He adds that he wouldn’t have had the same hopes in the past.

“If we look at Europe five, six hundred years ago, obviously I would not [have had much hope] the Catholics would do something like this.

“But we’re talking about the 21st Century. We’re talking about things that have evolved. There is definitely a dialogue between the Jewish religion and the Catholic religion,” he says.

Road to Mecca?

The question is: does this current trip form a stepping stone to a possible visit by the Pope to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam?

“Mecca, and [other holy cities] have their own standing in the Arab and the Islamic world,” says Khawaji.

“The progress and the changes we’re seeing now lead us to believe that we are to expect more things to come. How far these changes go, I cannot tell,” he admits.

But he adds that it does not just depend on Islam.

“This is all very much linked to reciprocal actions also from the West dealing with issues such as Islamophobia, which is on the rise, and efforts by the leaders including the Catholic Church to counter [this phenomenon]. That would also help [to create] more openness and more tolerance in the region,” he says.

After his private meeting with members of the Muslim Council of Elders in the Grand Mosque of Sheik Zayed, the Pope will visit the Cathedral and celebrate mass in the Zayed Sports City on Wednesday, before returning home to the Vatican.

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