ABU DHABI, 3rd February, 2019 (WAM) -- In 1960, two Christian missionary doctors from the United States arrived in the desert town of Al Ain, in what is now the United Arab Emirates, to establish its first hospital. With support from local leaders, including the Founding Father of the United Arab Emirates, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, they worked over decades to develop the hospital and to save lives, building a lasting legacy of respect from the town’s Muslim residents.
"This week," according to Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to the United States, "that legacy will be honoured when Pope Francis, Head of the Catholic Church, travels to the Arabian Peninsula, the first such visit for any Pontiff."
In an opinion piece today published on the US political website ‘Politico’, Al Otaiba notes, "Today, the UAE is home to 200 different nationalities, more than 40 churches and approximately 700 Christian ministries. Sikh and Buddhist temples welcome multinational congregations. Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke ground for a new Hindu temple. Evangelical Christian ministries abound in the country. The Jewish community is vibrant and growing."
"The Pope’s visit will send a strong signal across the region and world," he said. "People with different beliefs can live, work and worship together. Reverence, respect and compassion are core common values. Prayer is both uniting and unifying."
"But not everyone will welcome or embrace the message," Al Otaiba wrote. "Across the Middle East, we face the menace of extremism. Radical interpretations of Islam represent a tiny minority of those who practice the faith. But often the shrillest voices shout the loudest – whether it is on TV, on the internet or in a mosque. They twist and obscure the fact that Islam is a religion of peace."
"These extreme voices seek to incite crazed followers to do their bidding. They give rise to zealots like who carry out hateful, violent deeds against religious and ethnic minorities And fatefully, it is Muslims – Sunni and Shia – that suffer the heaviest price of all."
"Ignoring the threat or being complacent is too dangerous and will only feed the cycle of sectarian violence that has gripped the region for more than a generation," Al Otaiba argued. "Removing the extremists by force is also not the answer as long as the poisoned ideology and the conditions that nurture it endure. So how do we break this cycle? How can we encourage people to accept, not demonise, ‘the other’?"
"Beyond ensuring an open environment for religious practice at home, the UAE also advocates for freedom of worship and interfaith exchange globally," he noted. "These ideas and principles of mutual respect and genuine tolerance should be universal. Faith and belief are instruments of good for noble goals – not the pretence for death and destruction. The voices of moderation and acceptance must be lifted over those of division and hatred."
During his visit, Pope Francis will participate in the Global Conference of Human Fraternity being organised by the Muslim Council of Elders and will meet with Dr. Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Sharif.
The Pope and Sheikh Ahmed, Al Otaiba noted, "will unite their voices in prayers and homilies to the billions of Catholics and Muslims across the world."
"Sixty years ago deep in the desert, missionary doctors and Bedouin villagers built a bridge between two faiths with acts of kindness and understanding. We can do it again," the ambassador concluded.