VATICAN CITY // A UAE delegation met Pope Benedict XVI yesterday in the highest-level visit to the Vatican by Emirati officials since the establishment of diplomatic relations with the city state last year. Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, the speaker of the Federal National Council, who led the delegation, told Pope Benedict, leader of the world's Roman Catholic Christians, the UAE was committed to religious freedom.
"I told His Holiness that the UAE is based on religious tolerance and that we pay great respect to all religious symbols and figures," said Mr Ghurair. "People from more than 200 nationalities live in the UAE and I said that we don't discriminate between religions." The Vatican and the UAE established diplomatic ties at ambassadorial level in June 2007. The Government is expected to appoint an ambassador soon.
Mr Ghurair told the pope the UAE embraced peace between all nations and religions and the two men discussed building churches in the country, and the UAE's efforts to ensure this could be done. When Mr Ghurair told Pope Benedict that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, had given land this month for construction of a church for the Marthoma Christian community in Al Ain, the pope said he knew of the donation.
"I am aware of the construction of churches in the Emirates," the pontiff said. "I respect the efforts of your leadership to promote tolerance." "I was surprised that he knew about everything I told him about the UAE," Mr Ghurair said. The few Roman Catholic churches in the UAE are often overcrowded. They have to hold many services in different languages to accommodate the large numbers of Catholic faithful, mainly from the Philippines, India, the Middle East and western Europe, who wish to attend weekly worship. On major Christian feast days, thousands of worshippers have to listen to services from outside.
Mr Ghurair said he told the pope the UAE wanted to establish a strong relationship with the Vatican and to enhance civil and religious contacts. "We expect this relationship to materialise soon," he added. At present, Archbishop Mounged el Hachem is the Vatican's nuncio or envoy to the country. He resides in Kuwait where he also represents the Vatican. The UAE delegation's visit comes against the backdrop of a region-wide commitment to interfaith dialogue.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last year became the first Saudi monarch to hold talks at the Vatican when he met Pope Benedict in a move criticised by some Saudis. Commentators said the meeting was hugely symbolic and particularly important to those who believed there should be greater dialogue between Islam and Christianity. King Abdullah convened Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics in Madrid in July for talks on reducing religious intolerance. The UAE was represented at the forum.
At an interfaith conference at Yale University in July, religious and political leaders warned that much needed to be done to reach accord between the two faiths. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan warned that Muslims and Christians often mistrusted, disrespected and disliked one another. "Sixty per cent of Christians harbour prejudice against Muslims, and 30 per cent of Muslims reciprocate," he said, citing an international Gallup survey.
The last UAE official to meet the pope was the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the nation's founder, who met Pope John Paul II unofficially nearly two decades ago, according to Italian officials. Mr Ghurair also met Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, who welcomed the Emirati delegation to the Vatican. Cardinal Bertone said the UAE was a model for co-existence among various religions, adding that dialogue between faiths was possible and that extremists only constituted a limited number of followers of religious faiths.
He also reiterated the importance of paying respect to religious figures and symbols, saying the action of a Danish cartoonist who portrayed the Prophet Mohammed in a manner that caused offence to Muslims could not be considered a case that should be protected by press freedoms. Paolo Dionisi, Italy's ambassador to the UAE, accompanied the UAE delegation, which also included Dr Mohammed al Mazrouei, the secretary general of the FNC.
Mr Ghurair is heading an FNC delegation to a number of European countries including Italy, Spain and Poland. He is scheduled to meet senior officials, including presidents and prime ministers. The visit to Italy comes only a few days after Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, visited Abu Dhabi and met his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.