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Only Francis Could Go to Arabia

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About 800 years ago, St. Francis, the namesake of today’s Pope, unexpectedly met with the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, somewhere in the outskirts of the siege of Damietta. That the two grew to respect each other, and this respect became the basis of an inter-religious dialogue, is the stuff of religious lore. And many have drawn that parallel to the visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates this past week. The religious geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula are hardly less fraught than they were in Francis’ own day, and the results are perhaps just as mystifying. Moving in parallel is the calcified inequity of the UAE, a state that is nonetheless celebrated for its progressive tolerance, an emerging religious alliance against extremism of many kinds, with Yemen ever present in the background, and against all of this an unusual inter-faith declaration on Human Fraternity.

The United Arab Emirates has moved decisively to signal its progressive position in Arabia. Its invitation of the Pope comes after a series of labor protections in 2017, its adoption of a Minister of Tolerance, and a declaration of 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. Yet for all of this effort, some analysts have asked whether this is not a Potemkin village of tolerance, erected to impress an attention-deficit global elite, but passing as quickly as it has come without permanent redress of its gross inequalities. Indeed, of the UAE 9.5 million inhabits, only a mere 1.5 million are citizens, almost all Muslims. The other 8 million are Christian migrant workers. They have no citizenship. Their residency depends on their employers, and those........

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