Updated at 5:52 p.m. ET on February 8, 2019.
ABU DHABI—Sometime on Sunday, an advance team infiltrated my hotel and taped notes in Italian to the elevator call buttons. One floor was marked VATICAN ROOMS, and another VATICAN EXIT. The Vatican entrance was not marked, but the arrival of Pope Francis in the United Arab Emirates had been long foreshadowed.
For the past week, the UAE has been preparing for one of the most significant interreligious events in modern memory. A conference on “global fraternity” has featured rabbis, imams, swamis, cardinals, and obscure religious officiaries whose titles I had never heard before. (For fans of exotic clerical headwear, Abu Dhabi is temporarily the fashion capital of the world.) The assembled clerics, seemingly one of every type, were a sort of warm-up crew for the pope, who appeared Monday night with Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University (the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo), in a double act billed as a moment of public healing that will mend hatreds dating to the Crusades. Tuesday morning, Francis celebrated the first papal Mass ever in the Arabian Peninsula.
I have been coming to the Gulf for nearly 20 years, and for almost that long I have heard quoted a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, to the effect that the Arabian Peninsula (UAE and other Gulf States, plus Yemen) should not contain any religion but Islam. This religious zoning law is enforced with greater zeal as one approaches Mecca and Medina. There one finds no non-Muslims at all. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims may live temporarily and worship discreetly. In the UAE, there are churches, but proselytization is still illegal, and Islam is enshrined in law. You can get thrown in jail for blaspheming, and killed for leaving Islam. Practice of magic is criminalized, per Islamic law. And yet Francis performed, before an audience of about 120,000 and with no danger of prosecution, what many Muslims consider an act of sorcery, the transformation of wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ.