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The Pope’s historic visit to the Arabian peninsula

It will shine a light on the ways in which the UAE is growing more liberal—and where it is not

Christian pilgrims are not often seen in the Arabian peninsula, where Islam was born. But they are flocking to one of its emirates, Abu Dhabi, for its first papal mass on February 5th. More than 100,000 are preparing to pack the Zayed stadium, adorned with a big cross, to celebrate the Eucharist with Pope Francis. Hotels are full of pilgrims chanting hosannas. Some hold standards bearing the Christian dove of peace tweaked with wings the colours of the United Arab Emirates (uae) flag. The pope is “a symbol of peace, tolerance and the promotion of brotherhood”, says Muhammad bin Zayed, the crown prince, de facto ruler and papal host.

Such hospitality is remarkable for the region. Further north in Syria and Iraq jihadists have uprooted ancient Christian communities and torched their churches. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia still bans churches and Christmas trees. “Two religions shall not co-exist in the Arabian peninsula,” snap the Koran-bashers, quoting a saying of the Prophet.

Prince Muhammad, by contrast, has turned his emirate into an oasis of inter-faith dialogue. Grand muftis and prelates hug for the cameras. Under his tenure, the uae has offered fleeing Arab Christians a haven. It has a new cathedral, 16 new churches and some 700 congregations. Remarkably, in 2013 the uae ranked third among countries with the fastest-growing Christian populations. At home and abroad, the prince is also promoting a strand of Islam that encourages its followers to obey their rulers. It opposes the political Islamism—notably the Muslim Brotherhood—which harnesses religion as a force for social and political change. This is sponsored by the uae’s Gulf rival, Qatar.

Pope Francis appears to prefer Prince Muhammad’s strand of the faith. In an interview in 2016 he warned against the export of an “overly Western model of democracy” to the Middle East. Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI (who upset Muslims with a quote about the Prophet Muhammad’s propagation of the faith by the sword), Pope Francis has reached out to Muslims who seem to be tolerant. A quarter of all his papal visits have been to Muslim-majority countries, but he has rarely spoken out against their autocrats.

Some Catholics question whether the pope is right to take sides in intra-Muslim tussles. Others ask whether a peacemaker should be visiting just one party to a regional conflict (the uae and not Qatar). In other instances he has visited both sides, such as when he went to Israel and Palestinian areas.

In a region of despots, Prince Muhammad is one of the more feared. Although tolerant of religious minorities, he withholds political freedoms from the Muslim majority, particularly Islamists, who he fears might overthrow him. Parties are banned. Those who ask questions are jailed. Migrants—Christians included—have no prospect of citizenship. They remain foreigners no matter how many generations are born in the uae. “If the pope really cared about humanity, he would speak about human rights,” says Muhammad Saqer al-Zaabi, an Emirati Islamist, exiled in London.

The prince has bankrolled a regional campaign against Islamists, supporting the overthrow in 2013 of Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist president, Muhammad Morsi. He also meddles in civil wars, whether in Libya or Somalia. For almost four years, he and Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, have bombed and besieged Yemen, after its government was pushed out by Houthi rebels. The war has killed tens of thousands, driven millions to the brink of starvation and drawn accusations of war crimes. “It’s a horrible state and the pope’s visit lends credibility to that government,” says Khaled Abou el Fadl of the University of California in Los Angeles. “I’m worried about the moral message he’s sending.”

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