Daniel Olsen

Significance of pope’s visit to UAE

February 20, 2019

When Pope Francis disembarked from the plane in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 3, it marked the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that the successor of Peter visited the Arabian Peninsula. To focus too much on this marker of papal history, however, is to risk missing the present and future significance of this trip for interreligious relations, particularly Muslim-Catholic dialogue.

To better understand this significance, it is helpful to reflect on two actions that took place while the pope was in Abu Dhabi.

First, Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyib of Al-Azhar jointly signed a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” Cardinal Cupich, Catholic chair of the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, spoke of the importance of this document in a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement co-authored with Bishop Joseph Bambera, chairman of U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs:

“In our increasingly hostile world in which violence too often predominates between Christians and Muslims — violence that has led to tragic consequences for the most vulnerable humans — we welcome with great joy this historic joint statement on human fraternity by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib. The statement … is a clarion call for robust dialogue that leads to peace. We commend it to all people of goodwill, especially leaders of nations and religious groups, in the hope that it might serve as a resource to overcome division through a renewed commitment to dialogue and the establishment of goodwill.” 

In response to this call to utilize this document as a resource for dialogue, the Muslim-Catholic Scholars Dialogue of Chicago will study this document at its next meeting. This group encourages others in the Chicago area to do similarly.

The document itself is forthright in condemning actions that demean or deface the inherent human dignity that God has bestowed on all. It calls for all men and women of goodwill to join these two leaders in upholding human dignity by doing all in their power to ensure that acts of violence, oppression, prejudice and fear are removed for the sake of a just and peaceful society. 

“We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood,” the document reads. “These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings.” 

By jointly issuing this document, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar declared that hatred and attitudes that lead to hatred are as antithetical to Islam as they are to Christianity. 

Second, during his visit, Pope Francis presided at the first public Mass held in the United Arab Emirates. Despite the pope’s prayerful reminder in his homily that “living out the Beatitudes does not require dramatic gestures,” his actions proved that sometimes dramatic gestures do follow when one lives according to the Beatitudes.

While Christians and members of other non-Muslim religious traditions are allowed to worship in the UAE, these celebrations are required to be private. Pope Francis’ publicly celebrated Mass, with a crowd estimated at 180,000, remains the lone exception to this rule. 

Yet, it did offer a clear, if brief, display of growing trust and tolerance in the region. During and after the visit, many noted that several steps remain before religious freedom is fully realized on the Arabian Peninsula.

Even though we cannot foresee the lasting impact of this first-of-its-kind public worship, this moment stands as an indelible image of a potential future in the UAE amid growing openness. It was a moment of joy for the hundreds of thousands of Christian expatriates who inhabit the UAE, and served as a message of hope that may become a building block for dialogue.

Looking back at these two moments during Pope Francis’ historic visit shines light on his vision of encounter. Rather than focus on the differences between Christians and Muslims, he used his time in the UAE to build bridges, focusing first on our shared human dignity and belief in God. This provided him with a firm foundation to call for further dialogue and collaborative action.

May we find encouragement in this message and learn from this method of dialogue by committing ourselves to do our best to replicate it on the soil that we call home. 


  • muslim-christian relations
  • interreligious dialogue