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2019-FEB: Pope Francis visits
the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
and signs the Human Fraternity
with Sheikh Ahmed
Al-Tayeb, a leading Sunni Imam:

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On 2019-FEB-03, Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, started a historic three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is one of the Gulf countries in the Middle East whose prime religion is Islam. It was the first time ever that a Pope has visited the Arabian Peninsula!1

In the Emirates, Muslims constitute 76% of the population, Christians (13%), Hindus (7%), Buddhists (2%) Jews and others (less than 2%),. 7 The population includes one million Roman Catholics. All can worship openly. However, the use of media for religious purposes by other than Muslims is regarded as a form of proselytizing, and is restricted. 2 Also, individual religious conversions to Islam are encouraged, while conversions from Islam to another religion, or to no organized religion, are criminal acts. There are still laws on the books that carry the death penalty for:

  • blasphemy (speaking sacrilegiously, insulting, or showing contempt or lack of reverence to Allah, Muhammad, or sacred things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable) or for

  • apostasy (abandoning Islam and switching to a different organized religion, or to no religion).

However, "there have been no known prosecutions or legal punishments for apostasy in court." 5 An article in Wikipedia lists a half-dozen cases of jail sentences handed out for blasphemy from 1993 to 2012. 6

Webmaster's personal note:

Laws against blasphemy don't make a lot of sense to me. Almost any Christian statement of faith is blasphemous when considered by Muslims. Almost any Islamic statement of faith is blasphemous when considered by Christians, etc. Still, the UAE is another country that I would never visit because of personal safety issues.

, the Director-General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. writing for the Gulf News, said:

"The UAE has always been a model of tolerance and coexistence worldwide, set apart by values that promote openness, acceptance and respect for ethnic and religious diversity. With a deep commitment to safeguarding freedom of beliefs, the UAE renounces discrimination, hatred and racism." 9

He noted that:

"Led by the United Nations, the world marks November 16 every year as an International Day for Tolerance, but the UAE has declared the whole of 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. This reaffirms just how deep-rooted tolerance is in the UAE psyche, and how fundamental it is to the nation’s vision now, and in the future, as it plays an ever-increasing role in the international arena." 9

The UAE has promoted toleration repeatedly:

  • In 2015, UAE President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued Federal Decree No 2 titled: "Combating Discrimination and Hatred."

  • In 2016, the UAE's Ministry of Tolerance was established.

  • Also in 2016 the UAE Cabinet approved the National Tolerance Programme to promote principles of coexistence as enshrined in Islam, the UAE Constitution, the legacy of Shaikh Zayed, international conventions, and common values."

  • In 2017, the UAE's International Institute for Tolerance was launched to:

    "... spread a culture of tolerance in UAE society, build a coherent society, promote the UAE as a role model of tolerance, counter extremism, and prevent all forms of discrimination among people, based on religion, gender, race, colour or language." 9

Webmaster's note:

Notably absent is discrimination based on age, disability, gender identity, nationality, sexual orientation, and perhaps other grounds.

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2019-FEB-03 to 06: Pope Francis' visit to the UAE:

Before leaving on his trip, Pope Francis referred to the UAE as "a land that tries to be a model of coexistence." He began a video message about the trip with the Arabic salutation: "Salaam alaikum" ("Peace be with you").

He said in the video:

"I am happy for this occasion the Lord has given me to write, on your dear land, a new page in the history of relations between [sic] religions." 4

Jason Horowitz, writing for the New York Times, said that the Pope was:

"... seeking to improve relations with the Muslim world and to offer encouragement to Catholic migrants in a region where his flock has dwindled amid increasing persecution and bloodshed.

The three-day stay in the Emirates, a relatively tolerant oasis ... also comes as a brief reprieve for a pope whose legacy and moral authority have been challenged by his struggle to come to grips with a global sex abuse scandal that shows no signs of abating.

"... his emphasis on this trip will be interreligious dialogue and improving the situation of Roman Catholics, both in this oil-rich nation that has promoted religious inclusion and throughout the less tolerant, and more dangerous, region." 3,8

Pope Francis arrived in the UAE on Sunday, 2019-FEB-03. Welcoming the Pope and the grand imam, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan -- Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces said:

"The universe accommodates all of us. Diversity is a source of wealth and not a cause of conflict or strife. God has created us differently so that we can complement and know each other, and work together for the sake of peace and prosperity for all.

This is the message the United Arab Emirates wants to convey to the world by raising high the banner of tolerance, and by its endeavour to coordinate efforts, initiatives and plans that promote tolerance rather than hate, coexistence rather than conflict, moderation rather than intolerance and fanaticism, openness rather than isolation, and dialogue rather than discord." 9

The next day, Pope Francis met with the Council of Muslim Elders, at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the country’s largest. The Council specializes in interfaith dialogue.

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The Human Fraternity Declaration:

During the visit, the Pope met with Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and one of the highest authorities in Islam. 2 They jointly signed the Human Fraternity Declaration. It "promotes a message of peace and coexistence between followers of different faiths all over the world." 9

The Government of Dubai's Media Office stated:

"The ‘Human Fraternity’ Declaration seeks to build bridges of love, amity and coexistence among peoples and to confront extremism and its negative impacts.
The signing was attended by more than 400 religious leaders, as well as thinkers and intellectuals from around the world.
During the occasion, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid also announced the launching of a new award, ‘The Human Fraternity Award – Dar Zayed,’ which was jointly bestowed on Pope Francis and the Grand Imam." 10

The Human Fraternity Declaration says in part:

"We call upon intellectuals, philosophers, religious figures, artists, media professionals and men and women of culture in every part of the world, to rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence in order to confirm the importance of these values as anchors of salvation for all, and to promote them everywhere.

This Declaration, setting out from a profound consideration of our contemporary reality, valuing its successes and in solidarity with its suffering, disasters and calamities, believes firmly that among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitised human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles. ..."

"... there exists both a moral deterioration that influences international action and a weakening of spiritual values and responsibility. All this contributes to a general feeling of frustration, isolation and desperation leading many to fall either into a vortex of atheistic, agnostic or religious extremism, or into blind and fanatic extremism, which ultimately encourage forms of dependency and individual or collective self-destruction...."

"To this end, by mutual cooperation, the Catholic Church and Al-Azhar announce and pledge to convey this Document to authorities, influential leaders, persons of religion all over the world, appropriate regional and international organizations, organisations within civil society, religious institutions and leading thinkers. They further pledge to make known the principles contained in this Declaration at all regional and international levels, while requesting that these principles be translated into policies, decisions, legislative texts, courses of study and ma­terials to be circulated." 11

[The Bold text was not in the original document]

Webmaster's note:

The Declaration specifically values "peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence." However, with its stress on "God," it seems to conclude that such values do not exist among Atheists, Agnostics, religious extremists, and perhaps Deists, Wiccans, other Neopagans, etc. It is a pity that some of those groups were not included in the drafting of the Document. I think that they would have had a lot to contribute.

We only quote an excerpt from the Declaration, not the entire document, because we are uncertain of its copyright status. However, we provide a link below 11 to the full document.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Declan Walsh and Jason Horowitz, "Why Pope Francis’ Historic Visit to the Gulf Matters," The New York Times, 2019-FEB-03, at:
  2. "United Arab Emirates," Wikipedia, as on 2019-MAR-26, at:
  3. Jason Horowitz, "Pope Francis Makes ‘Historic’ Gulf Tour Amid Yemen Crisis and Christian Repression," New York Times, 2019-FEB-03, at:
  4. "Pope Francis' video message to people of UAE," You Tube - Vatican News, 2019-JAN-30, at: 2
  5. "International Religious Freedom Report for 2012: United Arab Emirates 3 (May 20, 2013)," U.S. Department of State, at:
  6. "Blasphemy law in the United Arab Emirates," Wikipedia, as on: 2018-NOV-08. at:
  7. "United Arab Emirates, "Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, 2916, at:

  8. book cover Daniel Philpott, "Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today," Oxford University Press (2019), at: Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  9. , "UAE: The global capital of tolerance," Gulf News, 2019-MAR-05, at:
  10. "Mohammed bin Rashid, Mohamed bin Zayed attend signing of ‘Human Fraternity Document’," Government of Dubai Media Office, 2019-FEB-04, at:
  11. Eudore R. Chand, We need to enter ‘Ark of Fraternity’ together: Pope," Emirates News 24/7, at: (Search for the phrase "Full text of the Decelaration" about halfway down the page.)

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Copyright © 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2019-MAR-27
Author: B.A. Robinson
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