How Pope Francis can inspire an epoch-making change
Surely Pope Francis’ trip to the UAE is a milestone, but what are the deep convictions that the Vatican has on relations with the Gulf countries and what could the next steps be? To find out, I asked for some help from colleagues at the Vatican News Agency, Agenzia Fides, who gave me the right name: Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the so-called “Red Pope”. “Red” because it is the cardinal color and “Pope” due to the enormous power he exercises in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
This Vatican dicastery has jurisdiction over the Apostolic Vicariates in the Arabian Peninsula and over 1,100 Catholic Church headquarters in the five continents: A third of the dioceses throughout the world.
The Middle East, however, certainly has a special place in the heart of the cardinal. After being a nuncio (papal ambassador) in Iraq and Jordan, in 2014 he was chosen by Pope Francis as his personal envoy in Iraq.
Filoni explained that, in the face of the atrocities performed by Daesh, words and good intentions were no longer enough to protect people, so he has called for political and proportional military action. Unfortunately, the violence in Syria and Iraq has not yet ceased and, for this reason, the interfaith conference that coincided with Pope Francis’ visit to Abu Dhabi is very important in terms of creating platforms for dialogue and synergies that will allow the Gulf to help stabilize the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Thoughts of pacifying the Middle East with external interventions without making the local decision-makers protagonists and partners is a folly, and the Vatican understands this well.
The cardinal, who in 2013 was strongly considered one of the eligible candidates to become Pope, answered my questions with weighed and important words, starting with the little-explored topic of relations with Saudi Arabia.
Will the Pope’s trip to Abu Dhabi facilitate them? “This is what we hope,” he said. “In 2017, the Holy Father received an important Saudi delegation in the Vatican and, during the meeting, there was talk of a common effort for peace and coexistence.” Filoni added: “The historic meeting between King Abdullah and Pope Benedict XVI, held in 2007, was a sign of the harmony and dialogue between religions and civilizations. We are within a journey and this journey is at a stage that can open another stretch of road.
It is up to each of us to do our own part. Peaceful coexistence is possible here in the West but also in Arabia, where Christian workers contribute to the economic and social good of the country and give testimony of respect, peace and benevolence.”
What emerges from speaking to the “Red Pope” is that Pope Francis’ visit is an important step in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims, but that it will not lead to anything without the help of equally enlightened Arab leaders who are eager to reform and without the help of a proper media system that does not only spread prejudices.
The cardinal was keen to say that dialogue does not start from scratch, even if the media often emphasizes negative things. In fact, in the European press, there is a lot of talk about the Gulf but with little knowledge of the situation and with many prejudices. We could talk about disinformation more than information: Just think that many readers have only just discovered that in the UAE there are Christian churches of all kinds. Filoni knows this very well since, in 2013, he made a memorable visit to inaugurate and bless the new St. Anthony of Padua Church in Ras Al Khaimah, after the faithful there had outgrown their previous church.
This is an almost inverse logic to what is happening in Europe, where many churches close due to a lack of worshippers.
What emerges from speaking to the “Red Pope” is that Pope Francis’ visit is an important step in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims, but that it will not lead to anything without the help of equally enlightened Arab leaders who are eager to reform and without the help of a proper media system that does not only spread prejudices. He says that the year of tolerance being celebrated in the UAE can be an example and an important starting point for the whole region. “Positive aspects must be highlighted. Many elements of the Christian and Islamic faith are in common:
The uniqueness of God, the fatherhood of Abraham, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage are fundamental aspects that we share.
For centuries, Christians and Muslims lived in peace and these elements should be strengthened today thanks to an enlightened policy,” he said.
And Saudi Arabia? “It is well known,” the cardinal said, “that Saudi Arabia is considered the cradle of Islam and therefore ‘sacred land.’ But, when migrants are welcomed, it is necessary to respect their fundamental rights and freedoms, including of conscience and faith.
In this sense, a perspective can be opened to develop a path in the name of tolerance and coexistence. Saudi Arabia is a full member of international forums, meetings, UN activities, and has economic and political ties with many nations all over the world. If there is respect and friendly relations are established in these contexts, I believe that this same paradigm can also be envisaged at a religious level, as a way forward for the future, based on a relationship of mutual respect.”
To sum up, enlightened leaders, courageous and correct journalists, dialogue and a lot of goodwill are the key elements for an epoch-making change. It will not be easy, but not impossible. Let us hope.
- Max Ferrari is a journalist and politician. He is a former parliamentary journalist, a war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and director of a TV channel. He is an expert in geopolitics and energy policy. Twitter: @MaxFerrari