Pope's visit kicks off UAE’s Year of Tolerance

The Pope’s visit to the UAE brings lessons for Europe and the Middle East, writes Ambassador Mohamed Issa Abushahab.

By Mohamed Issa Abushahab

Mohamed Issa Abushahab is the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the Kingdom of Belgium, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the European Union

05 Feb 2019

At a time when our societies are facing threats from outside and within, there is a growing recognition that tolerance and diversity is a powerful counter-measure to extremism.

It is in this spirit that Pope Francis has travelled to my homeland, the United Arab Emirates, in a first-ever visit by a Pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. This historic visit marks an early highlight of the UAE’s 2019 “Year of Tolerance”.

In the UAE, a Muslim majority country, we are proud of our diversity. With a population of around 10 million inhabitants drawn from more than 200 different nationalities, the UAE has over 40 Christian churches (in addition to 76 other non-Muslim places of worship) for residents to practice their religion unimpeded.


This represents the manifestation of the vision of the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who united seven emirates to become the UAE in 1971.

The Pope’s visit comes at the invitation of both the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Catholic Church in the UAE with its estimated 1 million members.

This joint initiative exemplifies the model of tolerance and co-existence that the UAE offers to the world in a region that often seems vulnerable to extremist ideologies and sectarian strife.

As a citizen of the United Arab Emirates and as a Muslim, I am a fervent advocate of peaceful co-existence and enhanced understanding between peoples, cultures, and religions. This is the case in my country: a hub in a volatile region, where cultural diversity is ingrained as part of our social fabric.

The values of openness and tolerance are critical prerequisites for stability. European nations learned this important lesson after two devastating world wars and on the back of the Cold War.

This resulted in what we now know as the European Union: a model of stability and peaceful coexistence of countries, religions, communities, and cultures that were traditionally at odds with each other; often violently.

"In the UAE, a Muslim majority country, we are proud of our diversity"

This history of coming together and bridging differences lies at the root of the EU’s embrace of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance. Throughout its 47 years of existence, the UAE has shared this outlook: we find common ground with the EU in the objective of fostering tolerance.

The UAE will always be a strong ally of the European Union in combating those who pervert religious ideology for their own intolerant goals.

The Pope has consistently been welcome in the Arab World and his words resonate with its inhabitants. But tolerance is not a one-way street: there are many examples of Muslim leaders and scholars being welcomed throughout Europe.

In spite of attempts by extremists on both sides to drive us apart, people from various religious backgrounds in Europe and the Middle East manage to look beyond the rhetoric and focus on what unites them. The UAE wholeheartedly promotes this outreach between religions and the message of tolerance it entails.

Today, 5 February, the Pope celebrated an open-air Mass in Abu Dhabi, that drew as many as 135,000 worshippers in the largest ever gathering of Christians in modern Arabia.

During his visit, the Pope will also join Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, and other members of the Muslim Council of Elders at the Grand Mosque in a landmark moment for interreligious dialogue.

"Tolerance is a vaccination against extremism and religious violence"

These events provide unparalleled opportunities to highlight the message of "human fraternity" and honour the shared desire to embrace diversity.

Interreligious dialogue reveals those aspects of our faiths that enable us to work together against intransigent ideologues. Tolerance is a vaccination against extremism and religious violence.

It is a vital instrument in the search for stability and harmony, in Europe and in the Middle East. Tolerance is essential for people to engage in dialogue and become “instruments of peace”.

This is exactly the theme of Pope Francis trip, chosen by the Pontiff himself and fully endorsed by the UAE. For these reasons, and many others, the UAE is honoured to welcome Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi.

Read the most recent articles written by Mohamed Issa Abushahab - The undeniable benefits of tolerance