Jesuit Scholar of Islam Assesses Upcoming Papal Visit to UAE
Egyptian native Father Henri Boulad says the historic visit offers a ‘golden opportunity’ to address some ‘thorny issues,’ but urges Pope Francis to take a more realistic approach toward Islam.
Pope Francis arrives in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, becoming the first pope in history to set foot on the Arab Peninsula. The key event of the Feb. 3-5 visit is a “Human Fraternity Meeting” of interreligious leaders aimed at prompting the values of brotherhood and peaceful dialogue.
For Melkite Jesuit Father Henri Boulad, the visit could mark a “step forward in Christian-Muslim relations” provided the Holy Father raises “clearly sensitive issues” affecting the region.
An expert of Islam and author of nearly 30 books in 15 languages, Father Boulad told Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin via email Jan. 19 that he expects the Pope to call on the Arab nations to face up to their responsibilities to welcome Muslim migrants from countries such as Iraq and Syria, but he also asked that the Holy Father change his position on Islam, calling his approach “much too naive and angelic.”
In an interview with the Register in 2017, Father Boulad said Islamist terrorists were applying what their religion teaches them, but that the Church had failed to address this because she had fallen prey to a leftist ideology that is destroying the West.
A native Egyptian, Father Boulad says that for dialogue to be fruitful, “we need a common basis of values and principles on which we all agree,” and that, given the UAE’s openness, the country “could — and should — play a key role to find such a basis in order to build together a permanent peace.”
Father Boulad, what is your opinion of the visit, the first by a pope to the Arab Peninsula? Is it a step forward or could it foster syncretism?
This first visit of a pope to the Arab Peninsula could mark a step forward in Christian-Muslim relations, provided that Pope Francis raises clearly certain sensitive issues, such as:
- the apostasy considered by Islam as a crime punishable by death; moreover, the UAE do not recognize or authorize the teaching of any religion except Islam.
- The status of second-class citizens and submission (dhimmi) for non-Muslims raises the issue of religious freedom.
- The status of women and the issue of citizen equality should be dealt with.
- If the Emirates disassociate themselves from Islamist terrorism, we expect them to firmly condemn the Muslim Brotherhood, Daesh [ISIS] and other extremist groups.
- Given the immense wealth available in the UAE, we expect them to give special care for Muslim migrants that have been coming over to Europe. Their support should be in concert with the oil monarchies of the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. Therefore, we are expecting the Pope to urge these Arab-Muslim countries to face up to their responsibilities vis-à-vis their Muslim brothers seeking to emigrate. By welcoming them, they would spare them the cultural shock of their integration into Europe. It is outrageous that these Gulf countries refuse to open their doors to Syrians and Iraqis welcomed by far-less-wealthy neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.
Do you think such visits to Muslim-majority nations can be more damaging than helpful to the Church and the faith?
Such visits cannot be damaging. Rather, they offer a golden opportunity to frankly address some of the thorny issues raised above, which require concrete answers. This visit could encourage the UAE to open up to a more liberal Islam. The Pope should emphasize that the Emirates are already on the right track, by their openness to Christians, to modernity and to human rights. I would highlight several recent initiatives in the Emirates, which augur the best for a new era in Christian-Muslim relations:
- Qatar finances the construction of a Maronite church in Keserwan (January 2019);
- A cathedral will be built in Bahrain;
- Abu Dhabi will see the inauguration of St. Elias Cathedral; [and]
- The only Kuwaiti priest, Father [Emmanuel] Gharib, is able to celebrate the Bible in Bedouin attire.
However, we should not lose sight of what The Observatory of Religious Freedom says about Bahrain [e.g. non-Muslim missionary activities among Muslims are not allowed; the country’s Shia majority continues to face oppression] and the UAE [e.g., Muslim citizens do not have the right to change religion. Apostasy in Islam is punishable by death].
Do you think Francis has in any way improved in his interaction with Islam?
Unfortunately, no. I feel that Pope Francis has hardly changed his approach to Islam in any way. His policy of the outstretched hand is always the same: that is to say, much too naive and angelic. Massive migration to Europe, mainly from Muslim countries, which he supports, shows that he loses sight of the serious societal problems that will arise: the non-integration/assimilation of Muslims in host countries, the incompatibilities of Islam with human rights, secularism, freedom and equality — not to mention the contradictions in the Pope’s statements.
On the one hand, he asks the host countries to respect the culture of immigrants, their Islamic worldview and traditions. And on the other hand, he asks Muslims to integrate and to respect the laws of the host country. It is quite difficult to reconcile these two opposite views, since Muslims consider the Sharia [law] to stand above the laws of the secular European host countries.
It is well known that Muslims have never integrated in countries invaded by them. Rather, they have forced the conquered countries to lose — often permanently — their ethnic and cultural identities, their religions, their languages and their traditions. This is a serious problem that arises more and more with political Islam in Europe. The Pope seems to ignore the history of Muslim conquests and the societal problems posed to Europe by political Islam. This endangers European identities, their traditions and their Judeo-Christian roots.
In conclusion, I would say that the Pope’s visit to the UAE could help Islam in getting out its present confrontation with the modern world. The only reasonable way is dialogue. For such a dialogue to be fruitful we need a common basis of values and principles on which we all agree. Given the openness of the UAE, they could — and should — play a key role to find such a basis in order to build together a permanent peace.