No Cheers For Pope’s Abu Dhabi Do


Convivium, 7 February 2019

Convivium Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza finds precious little to praise in the recent papal visit to the “socially appalling” United Arab Emirates.

Pope Francis just returned from a trip to the United Arab Emirates, the first ever papal trip to the Arabian peninsula, where Islam was founded in the seventh century.

The centrepiece of the Holy Father’s trip to the UAE was the joint signing of a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” Pope Francis signed it with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the leading university in the Sunni world. While Islam does not have a central authority like the pope, Al-Azhar has sufficient history and prestige that it can be considered a leading institutional voice.

That bit about “Living Together” caught our eye at Convivium as you might expect, as it can be translated as “living together.” The joint declaration included a renunciation of religious violence for any reason, and a plea for greater fraternity among different peoples and faiths.

All to the good, to be sure. Given that the Arabian peninsula is one of the worst places on the planet to be a Christian, the UAE got lavish praise this week for being a place where Christians are neither imprisoned nor killed. They don’t have full religious freedom and, as mostly foreign workers, are subject to all manner of injustices, but it’s about the best on offer in a region marked by both excess and wretchedness. I made those points here.

Yet what struck me about the papal trip to the UAE was how all those involved, from the papal party to the journalists to the participants in the interfaith conference, ignored the enormous camel in the room, namely that the UAE is a socially appalling place.

President George W. Bush used the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to describe attitudes that expected very little of racial minorities. “Those” people were not capable of much, so not much should be expected of them. Often public policies, ostensibly aimed at ameliorating some problem, are infected by that soft bigotry. “Those” people are not capable of doing for themselves, so it ought to be done for them.

There was something of that in the trip to the UAE. This Islamic country limits religious freedom, but churches are permitted and worship is allowed, and Christians are not in mortal danger. That’s worth at least one cheer, if not three.

But leave aside the question of Islamist violence against Christians. The entire UAE project – petroleum-fuelled excess built upon the exploitation of foreign workers who have few civil rights – is morally dubious, at least according to how Pope Francis generally speaks.

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