Church leaders stress the significance of first-ever papal visit to Arabia

CHURCH LEADERS in the Middle East are proclaiming the significance of Pope Francis’s Feb. 3-5, 2019 visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “I believe that this is a very positive sign for the relationship between Islam and Christianity in the region,” said Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, head of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt.

Papal Mass in United Arab Emirates, May 2, 2019

He continued: “We Christians in Egypt may harbor renewed hope. The fruits will not become apparent immediately, but the message of tolerance and fraternity has been sown.” The prelate cited in particular the importance of the Feb. 4, 2019 meeting in UAE between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayeb, one of the highest authorities of Sunni Islam.

“This visit will help to correct the false image that many Muslims have of Christianity,” said the Patriarch, adding: “Conversely, many Christians will realize that the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. The Islamic authorities want to show that they have nothing to do with terrorism.”

In the Holy Land, the papal journey to Arabia—the first ever visit of a Pontiff to the birthplace of Islam—has raised hopes as well. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who heads the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said: “The message of fraternity and dialogue that the Pope has brought to the Arab Peninsula is hopefully a seed that will also take root in the Holy Land.” The archbishop, who travelled to UAE for the occasion, continued: “We cannot expect this visit to bring a concrete solution. Only general statements can be made. However, the meeting itself is momentous because it gathers together religious leaders in a region that is the cradle of the monotheistic religions, but also one that is shaken by religious conflict. A meeting between the Pope and the Grand Imam is thus an important sign.”

Archbishop Pizzaballa said Christian-Muslim dialogue has entered a new phase. He explained: “There is a before and after ISIS. The Islamic-Christian dialogue began a long time ago. But it was very formal and general. With the appearance of ISIS, the dialogue became more concrete and more realistic. For all involved, it is about stopping aberrant behavior as well as he killing and massacres in the name of religion.” Stressing that religions in the region have a political and social dimension, the archbishop said that the focus of Christian-Muslim dialogue has now become how Christians and Muslims can develop positive relationships with each other in everyday life.

—Oliver Maksan