Pope and top Muslim cleric call for freedom of belief, tolerance



Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb greet each other as they exchange documents during the Human Fraternity Meeting in Abu Dhabi February 4. [Vincenzo Pinto/AFP]

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Pope Francis and a top Muslim cleric issued a joint call for freedom of belief during the first visit by the head of the Catholic church to the birthplace of Islam -- the Arabian Peninsula.

The pope, who has made outreach to Muslim communities a cornerstone of his papacy, was on a historic three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ]February 3-5.

Abu Dhabi's main stadium was a sea of yellow-and-white Vatican flags February 5 as Pope Francis arrived in warm sunlight to lead an open-air mass for tens of thousands of Catholics.

More than 135,000 Christians from parishes across the UAE erupted in cheers as the pontiff was driven into the Zayed Sports City Stadium. Four thousand Muslims also attended the mass.


Pope Francis shakes hands with a dignitary as he is accompanied by Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Abu Dhabi February 4. [Vincenzo Pinto/AFP]

The mass was reportedly the largest ever public gathering in the UAE.

An earlier pope, John Paul II, visited Pakistan in 1981.

'Fraternity for world peace'

On February 4, the pope held talks in Abu Dhabi with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, Sunni Islam's prestigious seat of learning in Cairo.

The two religious leaders signed a document on "human fraternity for world peace and living together", described by the Vatican as an "important step forward in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims".

They called for "freedom of belief", the "promotion of a culture of tolerance", the "protection of places of worship" and "full citizenship" rights for minorities.

"It is... crucial to establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term 'minorities', which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority," read the document.

It said "freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action" and that "pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God".

"The fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept," it said.

"The document was prepared with much reflection and prayer," the pope said on a plane taking him back to Rome February 5.

"Because for me, there's only one great danger at the moment: destruction, war, hatred between us. And if we believers aren't capable of helping each other, embracing each other... our faith will be defeated," he said.

"I heard from several Muslims that [the document] will be studied at university, at least at Al-Azhar, for sure, and in schools. It will be studied, not imposed," he said.

Religious duty to reject war

Pope Francis delivered an address at an interfaith meeting attended by Sheikh Ahmed and UAE leaders, where he said all religious leaders had a "duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word 'war'".

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan February 4 gave the pope a deed for the plot of land where the first church in the UAE was built in 1965.

Late February 5, he said he had "ordered the construction of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi to commemorate the historic visit" of the two religious leaders.

Pope Francis in turn gave him a framed medallion commemorating the meeting between St. Francis of Assisi -- the pope's namesake -- and the sultan of Egypt, Malek al-Kamel, in 1219.

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