Pope’s visit holds up a mirror to progressive UAE
by Delia Gallagher, CNN Vatican Correspondent
This was the pope’s first visit to the UAE, and it was also mine. After more than 50 trips as a Vatican correspondent, stretching back to Pope John Paul II, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, as I packed my bag and got ready to board the papal plane, I thought perhaps this would be a tough trip.
The conflict in Yemen was already hanging over this visit, and when – just an hour before he left for the UAE – Pope Francis made a plea for peace, I wondered how his message would be received in a country engaged in that conflict.
It was immediately encouraging, however, to see a tweet from Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, welcoming the Pope’s comments. This set a tone, which seemed to build to a crescendo in meetings with the Grand Imam, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb and with the Crown Prince. The Pope had spoken of ‘brotherhood’, and this image was repeated time and again on the trip in significant photo calls and meetings with religious and political leaders.
In so many ways, this was a unique trip. When the Pope travels there is usually a marked distinction between his political and religious meetings. In the UAE those boundaries were swept away, reinforcing the sense that Pope Francis was here to do business, with meaningful as well as symbolic meetings and conversations.
Any notion that controversial topics might be off limits on this trip was also very quickly blown aside. Characteristically, Pope Francis instead moved deliberately towards controversial areas. Having set the tone with his comments about Yemen, he brought up the topics of religious freedom, of citizenship for all and women’s rights.
No matter who I spoke to, whatever their social, cultural or religious background, I also found a genuine sense of enthusiasm about this visit on the ground.
Papal visits offer memorable moments for all involved. What I often notice is that those coming out to see the Pope also end up discovering something about themselves. When they gather together for events like the remarkable mass we saw on Pope Francis’s final day in the UAE, it is as though the Pontiff is holding up a mirror.
What those gathered in Abu Dhabi saw was a diverse, tolerant and progressive spirit in action. CNN’s coverage of the event brought these pictures to the world, not only through the spectacular footage of the crowds, but also through interviews with the kind of people I met throughout my trip – people of different faiths and backgrounds, discussing different and often controversial topics. Again, nothing seemed off limits. Barriers were not there.
The Pope set out on this trip preaching a message of progressive tolerance. It is difficult to measure the success or otherwise of these trips, but I left the UAE with the impression that the Pope’s message had been received with open arms by a country that wants to position itself as a beacon of tolerance in the region.