The UAE is preparing for a landmark visit by Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, when he will also meet with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. It is the first time any Papal visit has coincided with a visit by the Grand Imam and the Global Conference for Human Fraternity.
The UAE has declared 2019 the year of ‘tolerance’ and that word appears to rarely make the headlines in a global news agenda increasingly defined by the decline of multilateralism seen recently in UN Security Council dysfunction or the poorly attended and low energy Arab League Summits and Davos World Economic Forum.
The USA, traditionally the global leader in so many institutions, has shrunk into a domestic ‘America First’ Trump agenda and there are wider concerns as to a global slowdown both in the economy and the increasingly sharp divides between nations epitomised by the ubiquitous walls that are emerging along national borders.
The visit marks the first time a Pontiff has visited the GCC and it comes at a time of worsening sectarian politics swirling around the region. Indeed the Middle East’s particularly problems with sectarianism have developed from being something of a unsaid taboo to an issue almost casually used to describe the politics of a country or as a explainer of violence.
Dr Sultan Al Remeithi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Elders, the organisers of the Global Conference, said it would serve as “an intellectual forum to enable us to listen to the voice of reason and wisdom in human interactions regardless of one’s race and religious identity. It will also reinforce the concepts of citizenship and peaceful coexistence among communities”.
The challenge for the Conference is ensuring that notions of ‘peaceful coexistence’ are able to travel and influence beyond the confines of the hall where the meeting is taking place. Both the Pope and the Grand Imam have huge personal influence but it requires institutional support that goes beyond faith leadership alone and connects and amplifies a coalition of both government and civil society in order to flourish.
Far too often the actions of a extreme minority have come to dictate the direction of travel for the global majority. Modern communications tools have made the world a smaller place in which messages of fear and hate are divorced from facts and reality yet they spread like wildfire.
Conferences like the one coming up in the UAE must agree a plan of action that goes far beyond the actual days in which people will come together. For this to sustainable people need to take responsibility to become Ambassadors of hope, to think about what they will do and how for the year ahead.
The battle for human beings to show greater tolerance and respect for one another will be long and hard, and will surely suffer further setbacks. However, it is essential that it is continually fought and that moments such as the Pope’s visit to the UAE become rallying points for a disenfranchised quiet - not silent - global majority.
That the leaders of the world’s largest two faiths are coming together is a fantastic opportunity to energise and provide leadership to this issue. More than 135,000 people from across the UAE and around the world are expected to attend the Papal Mass at the Zayed Sports City. The images of cross faith dialogue that will come from this will be incredibly powerful and have the potential to capture global imagination, as well as the front pages of newspapers.
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