Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
Pope Francis will meet a high level delegation from the United Arab Emirates on Thursday and may accept an invitation to make an historic visit to the Arab state, although the Vatican has yet to speak about the possibility.
In June, the UAE’s Minister for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, formally invited Pope Francis to visit the country. A government source told the Register Sept. 13 that the invitation “was accepted but no date has yet been sent.”
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, will also have talks with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on Thursday.
During their meeting, the Pope and Sheikh Mohamed are expected to discuss joint cooperation efforts for “promoting tolerance, dialogue and coexistence, values held by all religions, as means to achieving stability, security and peace in the region and the world”, according to the Emirates News Agency.
Sheikh Mohamed, who also serves as deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and his entourage of ministers will also discuss ways of further enhancing and developing bilateral ties between the Holy See and the UAE.
A papal trip to the region would be an historic first: never before has a pope set foot on the Arabian peninsular. It would also be a boost to the Gulf’s very large immigrant population, many of whom are Catholics from India and the Philippines. Often they are employed as domestic helpers or construction workers, and work in poor conditions.
According to UAE government figures, around 900,000 Christians of various denominations live in the UAE, that’s 9 per cent of the population, and 70-75% of them are believed to be Catholics.
In recent times and as a reflection of the growing religious tolerance in the region, Gulf leaders have often extended invitations to popes to visit and have almost competed with each other to see who can be the most tolerant. In 2008, Bahrain’s King Hamad invited Benedict XVI to his country. He again returned to the Vatican in 2014, to meet Pope Francis.
Christianity has been present in the southern Arabian Gulf since the 6th Century, soon followed by Islam in the year 630. But as Islam took root in south-eastern Arabia, so the local population ceased to be Christian and the UAE’s connection with Christianity has been dependent on Christian immigrants ever since, often arriving due to trade links and oil.
Few churches has meant large Catholic parishes, and a local clergy that struggles to cope with the numbers. The UAE’s rulers have taken some steps to be accommodating: in 2002, a Catholic church was built on a plot of land donated by the ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, and in 2015, a new Catholic church, St. Paul's, was inaugurated in the Musaffah area of Abu Dhabi on land donated by Sheikh Mohamed.
Another factor attractive to the Vatican concerns the various efforts the UAE has been making to eradicate extremist, Islamist violence. The government has set up “Hedayah”, an Abu Dhabi-based center for countering violent extremism which, among other things, is focusing on the important role of education and promoting the “positive role of families, women, culture and religious moderation.”
The UAE has also been engaged in two other initiatives: the Sawab Centre, launched jointly with the United States, which is the “first-ever multinational online messaging and engagement program in support of the Global Coalition Against Daesh (ISIS)"; and ‘The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies’ which aims to bring together leading scholars to “promote an accurate understanding of the message of Islam and the real nature of the tolerance that lies at its heart”.
So might the Pope go? In view of the ever growing Islamist threat and the UAE’s promotion of religious tolerance, the challenges of immigration in the region, and the poor working conditions many of them suffer there in the face of extreme wealth inequality, a visit by Pope Francis would seem, on paper at least, almost inevitable.