Francis in Arabia: How to Think About the Papal Visit to Abu Dhabi

The first visit by a Roman Catholic pope to the Arabian Peninsula is slated for February 3-5, when Pope Francis celebrates mass and meets with with Muslim and Christian leaders in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The visit could portend improved relations between Christians and Muslims around the world, with special attention to the situation of the minority Christian in the Arabian Peninsula. The visit also could strengthen diplomatic efforts for an Arab-Israeli peace, a prospect less remote today than it was just a few years ago.

The UAE is a federation of seven principalities (emirates) along the Persian Gulf coast, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman by land, and situated across the gulf from Iran. Each emirate is ruled by a separate hereditary dynasty. The seven dynastic regimes combine to form a single “nation-state” for purposes of foreign and military policy, membership in the United Nations and other international organizations, and in some aspects of federal government within the UAE, for example, federal highways and other public works.

According to the UAE constitution, the hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi is ex officio the federal president and the ruler of Dubai is prime minister. These two emirates are the wealthiest and most influential of the seven, Abu Dhabi by virtue of oil and gas riches and Dubai because of its status as an international port, financial center, and travel destination comparable to Singapore and Hong Kong.

The UAE is Saudi Arabia’s closest political and military ally. The federation ranks second to Saudi Arabia in wealth and power within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Today, the UAE is closely aligned with its fellow Sunni Muslim state Saudi Arabia in regional conflicts versus Shia Iran and Iran’s clients and co-religionists, the Houthi in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Assad regime in Syria. While the UAE is powerful in its own right and is not a client state of Saudi Arabia, it is likely that it coordinated with Riyadh when making its historic and sensitive decision to invite the pope.

Signaling to Christians
This papal visit should be seen as a positive development simply because it is a goodwill gesture by influential Gulf Arab Sunni regimes towards all Christians. Regardless of how the Sunni states may wish to accrue reputational advantages versus their Shia rivals, it should be recognized that by no means are the pope and the Catholic Church attempting to “take sides” in the Gulf Arabs’ confrontation against Shia Iran.

The Vatican has for many years maintained diplomatic ties with Khomeinist Iran as close or closer than those with the Sunni Gulf Arabs, and there is no intention to impede or reverse the existing Vatican-Iranian relationship. Surely Pope Francis would accept an invitation to visit Iran, too, if circumstances were favorable.

Many conservative Christians, including some faithful Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, are disaffected—and quite rightly so—with Pope Francis. He’s sown confusion about some important questions of Christian doctrine and moral discipline. He’s taken what some of the faithful would call an inordinate interest in political and public policy questions, such as how to respond to climate change.

Be that as it may, these issues are not especially relevant to the visit to Abu Dhabi. What is essential in the visit is that it will be an occasion for Arabian Peninsula Muslims to increase their awareness of Christians in general and to witness an example of hospitality and religious tolerance on the part of their rulers.

Arab Muslims for the most part do not understand the disagreements between Protestants and Catholic, or the other divisions within Christianity. They don’t know enough about Christianity to make the distinctions. They certainly cannot be expected to be informed about current disputes that are largely internal to the Roman Catholic Church.

Even Arab Muslims with a keen interest in the Western world, including a desire to understand Christians and Christianity, are not well informed. For example, when I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia from 2009 through 2015, one of the Saudi Arab middle managers at Aramco liked and respected the Western world and wanted to become better informed about it. He told me once that he had smuggled into Saudi Arabia Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels, and he had read them with fascination.

It fell upon me to explain that not all Christians believe in a coming Rapture as projected in the “Left Behind” series. Many Evangelicals today believe in the doctrine of the Rapture, but most other Protestants do not. The official teachings of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches do not include a doctrine prophesying a Rapture.

This point and many other aspects of Christian faith are simply unknown to most Arab Muslims.

Just as most Western Christians have only a superficial understanding of the Islamic world and may regard as monolithic a religious body that is actually quite fractured, so, too, do Middle Eastern Muslims tend to look upon the Christian world as far more unitary than it is. This is a key reason why the UAE’s diplomatic gesture is made to the Roman pontiff.

While sophisticated Muslim leaders know that Christians are not united and that the Roman Catholic pope is not the leader of an undivided Christendom, he still serves a symbolic purpose to them as the closest thing to such a leader. To take this point even further, it could be argued that, strangely enough, while the secularized West has smothered Christendom and pronounced it dead, Arab Muslims still look to the West and perceive that, to their way of thinking, something like a Christendom exists.

A bloody-minded minority of Muslims including ISIS and al-Qaeda want to destroy Christianity. While I may be criticized for oversimplifying, the truth is that most Muslims today, while probably believing that the ultimate conversion of the whole world to Islam is inevitable, want some form of peaceful coexistence with the Christian world during our lifetimes.

Mirror-imaging is not a sound means of international understanding, and the global Christian and Muslim faiths and communities by no means are mirror-images of one another. Nevertheless, one key belief they do share is in the eventual conversion of the world to what each considers the One True Faith.

A Coming Saudi Openness?
The pope’s visit will be on the very doorstep of Saudi Arabia. This makes it an occasion with potentially great significance for Saudi Arabia’s internal and external policies and conditions.

No less authoritative a periodical than The Economist recently reported that Saudi Arabia is re-examining its long-held doctrine that Christian houses of worship should not be permitted to exist on the Arabian Peninsula, or at least not within the borders of Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina. Those making the case that the Saudi government might change its policy cite archaeological evidence that Christian churches did exist in Arabia for some time after the overall Muslim conquest of the territory, presumably with the approbation of Mohammed and his successors.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who because of the war in Yemen and the killing of his Saudi political opponent Jamal Khashoggi now is the bête noire of much of the permanent political class in Washington, recently has been in the forefront of gestures of greater Saudi openness to the overt practice of Christian faith in his kingdom. He welcomed the cardinal-patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church to Riyadh a year ago, and he later hosted in the Saudi capital another cardinal from Rome, Pope Francis’s chief adviser on inter-religious dialogue. Both of these well publicized, unprecedented visits by leading Catholic cardinals were meant to raise expectations that Saudi Arabia might change policy so as to allow the construction and maintenance of Christian church edifices within its national boundaries.

In November, the Saudi crown prince welcomed an unprecedented visit of U.S. Evangelical Christian leaders to Riyadh and met with them for two hours. This group is significant both because it represents many of the more fervently practicing Christians in the United States, and also it is the segment that ardently supports Israel. At the heart of this group’s enthusiasm for “Christian Zionism” is its belief that the re-establishment of a Jewish state in Jerusalem and the Holy Land is necessary to fulfill biblical prophecies. While this is a minority view among all Christians worldwide, it is a doctrine animating one of the most powerful political constituencies in America. On the same visit to the region, the Evangelical delegation traveled to the UAE for a meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

Saudi Arabia and U.S. Interests
Notwithstanding the horrors of the war in Yemen and the brutal treatment the Saudi government sometimes inflicts on its domestic opponents, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been a crucial participant with the United States in diplomatic efforts that are widely believed to be aimed towards full diplomatic recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia and Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. Already Saudi Arabia is well known to be engaged in close intelligence and security cooperation with Israel.

Self-righteous American politicians today who cannot restrain themselves from feckless gestures condemning the Saudi crown prince for the issues of Yemen and Khashoggi should be made to recognize that their moralistic posturing jeopardizes a very real and immediate chance for a nearly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Associated signs of Gulf Arab rapprochement with Israel were the past month’s visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman, and the visit of the Israeli culture minister to the UAE. Neither of those countries have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but they are behaving in ways that indicate formal relations may be contracted soon.

Gulf Arab leaders understand that Pope Francis and other Christian leaders have a valuable role to play in bringing about accord between Israel on the one side and the Palestinian and Gulf Arabs on the other.

In all of the Gulf Arab states besides Saudi Arabia, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant church buildings and parishes already exist.

In Saudi Arabia itself, Christians do conduct organized worship and catechesis. This practice of Christian faith is tolerated by the government, as a means of retaining needed foreign workers, so long as Christian communities have no official status and no church buildings, and as long as they remain invisible to the Muslim population. Never, ever, is a Christian allowed to proselytize a Muslim in that country.

The Catholic Church alone estimates it has more than 1.5 million members in Saudi Arabia; there easily could be a million or more Christians of other denominations also living in the Kingdom. Most of the Catholics are expatriate workers from India and the Philippines. Tens of thousands of Christian Arabs—Copts from Egypt, Chaldeans from Iraq, and Orthodox and Catholics from Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria—also live in Saudi Arabia.

Many of these Christian guest workers are accompanied by their families and live for decades in Saudi Arabia, some indeed for most of their lives. The Christian communities of Saudi Arabia, hidden though they are, probably exceeds 10 percent of the country’s entire population. In the UAE, the Christian population—which is not hidden—is probably greater than 15 percent.

A single Catholic bishop resident in Bahrain has oversight of the churches of four countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. Another Catholic bishop, based in Abu Dhabi, tends to the flocks in the UAE, Oman and Yemen.

The Catholic bishop responsible for Saudi Arabia maintains a website for his vicariate—equivalent to a diocese. Here he reports:

The Catholic community respects the sensitivities of the region and has always maintained a low profile. Relations with the local authorities are generally good. The country allows Roman Catholics and Christians of other denominations to enter the country as foreign workers for temporary work. The situation of the Church in Saudi Arabia is similar to that of the early Christian communities.

In a few days, English-speaking Christians of all denominations, including many thousands in the hidden congregations of Saudi Arabia, will sing these words from the Christmas carol “O Holy Night”:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Hope, one of the theological virtues, is not merely a suggestion for Christians; it is an obligation.

Westerners—especially believing Christians and Jews—who want more peace and less conflict coming out of the Middle East, need to understand and keep in focus the hard realities that make relations between Islam and the West so difficult. But at the same time, they should give their attention to prayer and hope when Pope Francis visits Abu Dhabi.

Photo Credit: Luka Gonzales/AFP/Getty Images

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