By Elena Dini
ROME — Archbishop Michael Louis Fitzgerald, papal nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the Arab League, from 2006 to 2012, said the document Pope Francis signed in the United Arab Emirates earlier this week is “a common call to action” and offers “a broader understanding of religious freedom” than the current understanding in the country.
Pope Francis paid a historical visit to the United Arab Emirates Feb. 3-5.
Commenting on his visit the day after returning to Rome during his Wednesday General Audience, the pontiff said: “This was the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula and took place 800 after St.Francis of Assisi visited Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.”
This visit “marked a step forward in interreligious dialogue and in the commitment to promoting peace in the world,” he said.
On Feb. 4, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar signed a document on Human Fraternity.
“There, we affirm the common vocation of all men and women to be brothers and sisters as children of God, we reject every form of violence — especially that committed in the name of religion — and we dedicate ourselves to defending authentic values and peace in the world,” said the Holy Father.
Archbishop Fitzgerald, a member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa, who also served as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, from 2002 to 2006, shared a few thoughts on this historical event.
Q. Why was this Apostolic visit in the UAE so important and what are the main achievements you see in the document that was signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Tayyeb?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: It was the first visit of a Catholic pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf States, including the United Arab Emirates, are not Saudi Arabia, but they are in the same region.
With regard to the document, it is a call to common action, which is in harmony with the line adopted by Pope Francis. It covers a wide spread of issues. It mentions freedom of belief, thought, expression and action, which is a broader understanding of religious freedom. I do not think that this broad understanding is current in the UAE, where Christians are free to do more or less what they like on their own church premises but are not free to express their religion publicly outside these premises.
The document also advocates full citizenship. Yet in the UAE, foreigners may be present in the country for many years — they may be born there — but they remain foreigners. They are not given the possibility of becoming citizens.
Q. Many of the people who crowded the streets and the stadium for the Mass with the Pope were migrant workers. Could you tell us more about their conditions and do you think that the recently signed document will have an impact on their situation?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: The migrant workers, many of whom are professionals, come from a wide variety of countries. Prominent among these are India and the Philippines. The fact that they cannot obtain citizenship makes their situation precarious. If they lose their employment, they have to leave. Yet, as far as I know, most are well paid and are able to send remittances to their families in the home countries.
The fact that Pope Francis was able to celebrate Mass in a public place is an important first. It may set a precedent.
Q. Pope Francis referred to the 800th anniversary of Saint Francis with the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil during this visit. What do you think is the heritage that event offered us?
Archbishop Fitzgerald: In a time of war, the Crusades, Francis met the Sultan al-Kamil in a different spirit. Conflicts are not overcome by violence, but by dialogue and negotiations. The Abu Dhabi declaration proposes this in the spirit of Francis.