Who could have imagined?

One: That India would keep its doors shut for Pope Francis, arguably one of the most important religious leaders in the world today, despite his wish to visit the land of the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, whereas the tiny United Arab Emirates in the heart of the Arab world would roll out the red carpet for him?

Two: That the Pope, the first ever head of the Vatican to visit the Arabian Peninsula, would hold Mass in a stadium in UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi attended by nearly 1.4 lakh Christians – believed to be the largest religious congregation of Christians in the history of the peninsula?

Three: That the pontiff of the Catholic Church and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt, the most important centre of Islamic learning in the world, would embrace and sign a powerful joint declaration for world peace and human fraternity transcending all religious, national, cultural and racial differences?

Four: That the Pope and the Imam would together issue the strongest appeal in recent times against bigotry, religious extremism and terrorism?

Five: That the United Arab Emirates, and not India, would show the ambition and resolve to become the “global capital of tolerance” – and indeed become the first country in the world to appoint a “Minister of Tolerance”?

Six: That even as the mandir-masjid row in Ayodhya continues to roil India, the rulers of this Muslim country would allot a large plot of land for the construction of a grand Hindu temple in its capital city, not far from the grand mosque that bears the name of its founder − Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan?

This is not someone’s imagination, it is reality.

A crown prince of change

The global reputation of the United Arab Emirates – a federation of seven emirates – in recent decades has come from its fabulous wealth and its glitzy skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Admittedly, the UAE also has a somewhat unsavoury past. It has sometimes supported a radical brand of Islam, and Islamist politics in India’s neighbourhood. Additionally, underworld don Dawood Ibrahim had fled there after committing acts of terrorism in India. In 1996, the UAE became only the third country in the world – after Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – to recognise the fundamentalist Taliban government in Kabul, which had changed the name of the country to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.

But almost all of this has now changed. Cynics would say that the change was inevitable since Emiratis constitute only 11.5% of the country’s population while expatriates and immigrants, belonging to all faiths and from countries around the world, account for 88.5% of the population (At 27.1% Indians comprise the largest national group of this).

The main credit for the positive changes in the UAE goes to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the reformist crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Today he is the country’s effective ruler. The UAE’s president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is reportedly not in good health. It was the crown prince who decided that the UAE would observe 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance”. He created a new ministry called the Ministry of Tolerance – possibly the first such department in the world. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, who heads it, is widely respected for his liberal views and unwavering commitment to pluralism.

It was also the crown prince who decided that the “Year of Tolerance” would begin with an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the UAE to bless, jointly with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmad Al Tayyeb, a government-sponsored global inter-religious conference for “Human Fraternity” in Abu Dhabi. It was organised by the Muslim Council of Elders on February 3-4. As a Hindu representative from India, I was privileged to participate in this conference, where I gave a talk on Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy.

The core purpose of this conference was, of course, to strengthen Muslim-Christian dialogue. This is the need of the hour for both the Christianity-dominated West and the Arab world, which is the cradle of Islam. Many parts of this region are torn by inter-religious and intra-religious strife, which has been made worse by the imperialist machinations of some countries. Nevertheless, the conference also provided a platform for religious leaders and intellectuals representing all other faiths from across the world.

A star speaker at the conference was Brahmavihari Swami, a Hindu monk from the Swami Narayan tradition. He remarked: “The critical choice before all the faiths, countries and cultures in the world is simply this: Do we unite and flourish together? Or do we disunite and perish together?” As someone visiting West Asia regularly for the past 20 years, he complimented the UAE for making the first choice. “If there is one country that has become a peaceful, broadminded and welcoming home to diverse faiths and cultures in recent years, I have discovered that it is the United Arab Emirates,” he said.

Swami explained that the main purpose of inter-faith dialogue is to attain greater understanding of one’s own faith as well as the faith of others. Ultimately, “a Hindu should become a better Hindu, a Muslim should become a better Muslim, a Christian should become a better Christian and so on, which will surely train us to respect one another”, he said.

During the coffee-break after the end of the session, the Swami was mobbed by delegates and journalists. I heard at least one of them, a black Muslim participant from Kenya, saying to him: “Thank you so much. You have made me understand my Islam better.”

Pope Francis holds Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on February 5, 2019. (Photo credit: Vatican Media/ via Reuters).

Warning: ‘The Third World War is being fought piecemeal’

All wise men think alike, even though they articulate their thoughts differently. The Pope said, “We will either build the future together, or there will be no future.” His prescription for securing a better future for the whole world was: “Let us demilitarise the human heart.” Similarly, I was struck by the following rousing affirmation in the joint declaration Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which the Pope and the Imam signed at the concluding ceremony of the conference:

“In the name of God...Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West, declare adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”

To emphasise that they were not appealing for an exclusive Muslim-Christian dialogue, the two leaders stated:

“Our aspiration is that this Declaration may constitute an invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among all believers, indeed among believers and non-believers, and among all people of goodwill; this Declaration may be an appeal to every upright conscience that rejects deplorable violence and blind extremism; an appeal to those who cherish the values of tolerance and fraternity that are promoted and encouraged by religions.”

Then, in words that have a special relevance to the deplorable happenings in India and our South Asian neighbourhood, the Declaration states:

“We resolutely declare that religions must never declare war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings…History shows that religious extremism, national extremism and also intolerance have produced in the world, be it in the East or West, what might be referred to as signs of a ‘Third World War being fought piecemeal’.”

What is striking about this Declaration is that the Pope and the Imam do not focus only on problems arising out of intolerance and violence in the name of religion. They also appeal to the global community – especially “leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy” − to address other challenges such as poverty, environmental decay, “a build-up of arms and ammunition”, “attacks on the institution of the family”, and “a human conscience desensitised by individualism and materialism”.

They warn that these challenges, if not overcome through global cooperation, can have ruinous consequences for every section of humankind. They almost sound socialistic when they say:

“We likewise affirm that major political crises, situations of injustice and lack of equitable distribution of natural resources – which only a rich minority benefit from, to the detriment of the majority of peoples of the earth – have generated, and continue to generate, vast numbers of poor, infirm and deceased persons. This leads to catastrophic crises that various countries have fallen victim to despite their natural resources and the resourcefulness of young people which characterise these nations. In the face of such crises that result in the deaths of millions of children – wasted away from poverty and hunger – there is an unacceptable silence on the international level.”

UAE’s fund to promote tolerance worldwide

Usually, inter-faith conferences become one-off events without any immediate and tangible outcomes. This one was different. If petro-dollars from the Gulf supported the spread of Islamism in the past, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi has launched a fund to support projects that promote tolerance and peaceful co-existence worldwide. Among other things, the Zayed International Fund for Co-existence will financially assist the development of school syllabi that instil values of pluralism and human fraternity in young minds.

The crown prince has also ordered the construction of an “Abrahamic Family House” in Abu Dhabi to commemorate the historic visit of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam to the UAE. In addition, he announced that both he and (“my brother”) the ruler of Dubai have signed the foundation stone for building a new Church of Pope Francis and Mosque of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi.

Pope Francis talks with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan during a farewell ceremony before leaving Abu Dhabi, UAE, February 5, 2019. (Photo credit: Vatican Media/via Reuters).

A Hindu temple with Muslim patronage

Lest anyone be inclined to think that the UAE’s promotion of tolerance is limited to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), here is some news that Brahmavihari Swami, the prime mover behind the project to build a huge Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, shared with me.

Swami enjoys an extraordinary relationship, based on mutual trust, with both the Crown Prince of UAE and the Minister of Tolerance. As a result, the UAE government has allotted 26 acres of land, along the main Abu Dhabi-Dubai road, for building a magnificent Hindu temple. More startlingly, when the Swami approached the crown prince with two separate designs for the temple – one in which it was an iconic Hindu temple visible to all and the other in which the temple was enclosed within high walls so that it could not be visible from outside (in deference to the sensibilities of some Muslims who do not wish to see a Hindu temple in a Muslim country) – Abu Dhabi’s ruler had no hesitation in choosing the first. “I would like the Hindu temple to look like a Hindu temple,” the crown prince said, according to Swami.

Many people in the UAE believe that Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, commonly known as MbZ, has a significant influence on another important crown prince in the region – Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who is known as MbS. Both MbZ and MbS are strongly opposed to Islamist movements in the region and elsewhere. If these two rich Muslim nations consistently advocate the ideals of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence, their positive impact will surely be felt all over the Muslim world, including in Pakistan.

These heart-warming developments in an important region in the Muslim world present a contrasting backdrop to the ugly face of intolerance and bigotry in contemporary India. Muslims in India have never felt as marginalised as they do today. Incidents like mob lynching in the name of cow protection have not been sufficiently condemned by the leaders of the ruling party and the government. And even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in 2017 – a decision widely appreciated in both countries – he has not stood in solidarity with the UAE’s campaign for tolerance. How can he, when he refuses to condemn Hindutva hotheads among his supporters, some of whom are given ministerial berths in his cabinet? His government has also so far stonewalled all efforts by leaders of the Catholic Church in India – and also by non-Christians like me – to invite Pope Francis to visit India. In 2017, the Pope visited neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar, but could not come to India in spite of his wish, which he had expressed to several people (including me when I met him in Assisi, Italy, in 2016.)

Responding to this unhappy situation, a prominent Indian in Abu Dhabi (who asked not to be identified) said to me in anguish, “Bharat mein ulti Ganga beh rahi hai.” The holy river Ganga is flowing in the opposite direction in India.

Could we have imagined this?

The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is the founder of “Forum for a New South Asia”, which advocates friendly and cooperative ties connecting India, Pakistan and China. He welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com.