February 05, 2019
It was a sight the world had never seen before -- and many believed, never would. For the first time in a thousand years, the pope was invited to the Arabian Peninsula to speak. And speak he did -- to a packed stadium of 180,000 in the center of United Arab Emirates (UAE), the heart of the Islamic world. For a nation that declared 2019 the "Year of Tolerance," UAE certainly seemed intent on proving it.
It was a scene few could have imagined: Pope Francis leading mass before an audience that included the crown prince and hundreds of imams, ministers, and rabbis. His message, which included discussion of Jesus Christ, was also one of religious harmony. "God is with those who seek peace," he promised as part of his homily encouraging a better relationship between Christians and Muslims. "There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future," he insisted.
Back in October, during my trip to UAE, I learned firsthand that the crown prince has an appreciation for the freedom of religious worship and exercise that's rare in the region. Under his leadership, the UAE is a more tolerant nation, where Christians are allowed to worship freely and openly. Obviously, the country is still an Islamic nation, but unlike most, freedom of worship is a principle they take seriously.
And that's no accident. Decades ago, when the crown prince's father and mother lost two children, it was missionaries from the United States who helped his family at a medical clinic they'd established. That launched a long-term relationship that resulted in a Christian hospital and a church that exists in the UAE to this day. It was through that mission work that there was an acceptance of Christianity and its humanitarian aspect -- and, as a result a respect for the Christian people.
Today, we're seeing the fruit of that mission work in a culture that's more accepting of other faiths. While some would caution not to read too much into the pope's visit (there are still severe restrictions on public displays of other religions), it is incredibly significant that a Muslim nation would embrace the world's most prominent Christian leader in such a public way. Clearly, their actions are matching the crown prince's words on religious tolerance. As FRC's Travis Weber points out, "While it's not full religious freedom as we understand it, what the UAE is doing is very promising -- and we encourage similar steps toward religious freedom elsewhere in the region."
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.