(Jerusalem, Israel) — Three months ago, I had the opportunity to lead the first-ever Delegation of Evangelical leaders to visit the United Arab Emirates, at the invitation of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
My colleagues and I were deeply encouraged to meet privately with the Crown Prince for more than two hours, and to meet with other senior government officials. We also loved meeting and praying with senior Christian leaders, and learning that there are more than 700 churches operating openly and safely in the U.A.E., and that nearly one million followers of Jesus Christ live there, nearly ten percent of the population.
This week, the Crown Prince and his fellow sheikhs made another bold step, hosting the first-ever visit by a Roman Catholic Pope to the Arabian Peninsula in the history of Islam. They even permitted Pope Francis to hold a mass this morning. An estimated 120,000 Catholics showed up to the outdoor stadium, making this the largest Christian worship service in the history of the Middle East.
The three-day visit made front page headlines and led TV news programs throughout the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, which as of yet has not allowed any church buildings to be constructed.
So, why exactly did this Sunni Muslim nation invite us and Pope Francis? And in the eyes of at least one prominent American Evangelical leader, what is the significance of the Pope’s visit this week?
To address these questions, I commend to your attention two op-eds, each written by friends of mine:
- Why We Invited the Pope to the Arabian Peninsula by His Excellency Yousef al-Otaiba, the U.A.E.’s Ambassador to the United States.
- The significance of Pope Francis’ UAE visit is impossible to exaggerate (Nobel Committee, take note) by Rev. Johnnie Moore (who joined our Evangelical Delegation to the UAE last November and was in Abu Dhabi this week to witness the Pope’s visit first-hand.)
I was moved by both articles, and hope you will be, too.
One additional thought for now: Do significant theological differences remain between Muslims and Christians, as well as between Catholics and Evangelicals? To be sure. My goal is not to blur those differences nor suggest they are not important. They are very important. Rather, my goal it is to see if people of different faiths who have deep disagreements over central theological matters (as well as social, cultural and political ones) can love and respect one another and encourage peace rather than the genocidal violence the region has known far too long. To this end, I’m glad to say I am seeing some hopeful signs of progress.