It is not a coincidence that just a few days after the return of Pope Francis from Abu Dhabi, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose five-term appointment the pope did not renew in July 2017, published his “Manifesto of Faith.” This document was a veiled attack on the pope, even though it did not name him. The doubts some cardinals continue to raise about the pope’s orthodoxy are, among other things, a sign that this pontificate’s basic trajectory remains the same, despite the sex-abuse crisis. One year after his eye-opening visit to Chile and Peru in January 2018, Francis has dealt with the abuse crisis by convening an unprecedented meeting of all the presidents of bishops’ conferences at the Vatican. Yet the pope has not given up on his other priorities, one of which is to improve the church’s relations with Islam and the Arab world. Francis’s February trip to the United Arab Emirates was a sign that he remains committed to this project. It was not the first such trip (in 2017 he went to Cairo for a peace conference at al-Azhar); nor will it be the last (this month he is traveling to Morocco).
The visit to the UAE was controversial within the Vatican: top curial officials wondered whether it would have been better for Francis to go to Qatar and Oman—or to Bahrain, whose sovereign invited the pope four years ago. Francis chose the UAE because he wanted to continue his dialogue with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Egyptian Ahmed el-Tayeb, who organized the interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi. The meeting was sponsored by the Abu Dhabi–based international Muslim Council of Elders and was promoted as a key part of the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance.” (In 2016 the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced the creation of a “minister for happiness” and a “minister for tolerance.”)
Francis may have also wanted to give greater visibility to the significant Catholic population in the UAE—close to one million—almost all of them migrant laborers from Asia. Their situation is better than that of religious minorities in some other Arab- and Muslim-majority countries, but it is nevertheless precarious. The religious tolerance they enjoy is still quite limited by Western standards. In planning his papal visits, Francis has always given special attention to countries where Catholics and Christians are a small minority. On the Arabian Peninsula, Roman Catholics live as a minority in the cradle of Islam. They are also a minority within a minority: Catholics of the Roman rite are just one of the many ancient Christian communities. Francis’s trip to the UAE served to highlight the diversity of Christian traditions in the Middle East, some of which go back to the first centuries of the church.