United Arab Emirates

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Despite the non-stop hubbub in U.S. politics that dominates the news, and the sexual molesting crisis that consumes Catholic media outlets, history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula achieved some spot coverage. But journalists now need to offer richer analysis of the longer-term significance of the February events in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

You want pertinent news angles? You want some valid follow-up stories?

Islam and Catholicism each claim the allegiance of more than one billion souls. Terrorists claiming inspiration from Islam vex the entire region, with fellow Muslims frequently among the victims of carnage, while targeted Christians have been pushed out of their faith’s ancestral heartland. In the U.S. State Department’s latest religious freedom report, six of the 10 worst nations “of particular concern” are majority Muslim (Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), with others on State’s “special watch” listing.

There was substance alongside the pageantry and photo ops in the UAE, a joint declaration issued by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, who leads venerable Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This is generally considered the chief intellectual center in Islam’s dominant Sunni branch (though long tainted by links with Egypt’s authoritarian regimes). Tayyeb is no pope but as authoritative as any figure in Sunnism. The joint statement results from years of intricate diplomacy between the Vatican and Al-Azhar.

Among the many moral evils addressed, the pope and imam called upon the world’s leaders “to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression,” adding that “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people. … Terrorism must be condemned in all its forms and expressions”

The declaration also proclaimed that “each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action” and opposed forcing people “to adhere to a certain religion.” It stated that “protection of places of worship — synagogues, churches and mosques — is a duty” under both religious teachings and international law. It upheld women’s rights to education, employment and political action. And so forth, including some interesting theological commentary on God creating the various world religions.

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Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.

However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.

For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”

The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.

The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.

The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …

But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.

So what was the theological news?

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Saudi Arabia: Journalistic whiplash follows a crown prince's political crackdown

Saudi Arabia: Journalistic whiplash follows a crown prince's political crackdown

What now, Saudi Arabia? Any more surprises ahead for the media elite?

Barely a week ago, international media outlets were playing up what they interpreted as the beginning of genuine religious reform in Riyadh and the uprooting of corrupt privilege.

But that was then. This week the narrative has shifted dramatically.

That Western applause over Saudi Arabia's signaling that women will finally be allowed to drive in the desert kingdom, unabashedly received as a sign of religious reform, or at the least, a sign of moderation?

Now it's just as likely that it was mere religious window dressing meant as international cover for the wholesale purging of key political rivals by the royal household -- which is to say by Saudi Arabia’s young and ambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, acting with the apparent approval of his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Click here for a refresher on current events in the oil-rich desert kingdom -- though keep in mind that by the time you read this events may quite possibly have moved on.

Not to be minimized is that all this comes at a time of escalating tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran that are capable of destroying whatever semblance of peace remains in the Middle East.

Care to read an Arab take on what's happening?

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