Since his election more than ten years ago, Pope Francis has drawn new lines in his pontificate which will distinguish him throughout the history of the Church. Among them is that he is the first Pope to visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in its capacity as being the first Gulf country which was followed by a visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain exactly a year ago. Furthermore, Pope Francis’ environmental concerns have actually earned him the title, “The Green Pope,” in addition to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is also called the “Green Patriarch.”
Pope Francis, who visited the UAE on February 4, 2019, signed with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Dr. Ahmed El-Tayeb, an important document on the path of Christian-Islamic dialogue and brotherhood, namely the Document of “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. This document included some elements of religious convergence, including the issue of the environment. The document states, "Dialogue, understanding, and the widespread promotion of a culture of acceptance of others and of living together peacefully would contribute significantly to reducing many economic, social, political and environmental problems that would weigh so heavily on a large part of humanity." Thus, the first week of February, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2010 as a week for interfaith harmony based on a Jordanian initiative, also marks on the 4th day of the same month the International Day for Human Fraternity based on a UAE initiative.
As the UAE gets ready to hold the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) titled, “Together for Our Planet,” at Dubai's Expo City, the Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will arrive in the UAE, but it is not the case as had been in the first visit, namely a pastoral one par excellence, and an official one which paved the ground for the establishment of the Apostolic Nunciature in Abu Dhabi in 2022, and the nomination of Lebanese Bishop Christophe Zakhia El-Kassis as the first apostolic nuncio. However, we are nowadays facing a private visit, perhaps the first one in which the Pontiff leaves the Italian borders with his plane landing in a country to attend an international conference as head of state of the Holy See. Moreover, he will also be accompanied on this visit by Sheikh Al-Tayeb and a number of religious leaders who support the international climate summit. On December 2, Pope Francis will inaugurate the Faith Pavilion at the summit.
This is the first time during which religious leaders participate in this major event, which is held every four years. The Pope issued the warning in his first encyclical on the environment in 2015, titled, “Laudato si,” in which he made clear that he is very concerned, or rather very worried about the climate and the climate changes that are taking place in the world. Yet, he pointed out the relevant major theological concerns. Eight years later, he signed a new encyclical titled, "Laudate Deum" which included accurate scientific information, as the last line reads: “Praise God.” This is the name of this encyclical because humans ought to naturally, acknowledge the divinity of God, and do everything to praise the Creator.
Why then there is religious interest in the environmental field?
Firstly, because it has been too late to treat the climate, as it is the cry of religions to save the Earth. Secondly, because nature is God’s creation and it is the duty of heads of religions to urge leaders to sign agreements that curtail the rise in global temperatures, especially 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet it also needs the support of believers in order to glorify God in His creation. In this conference, in support of the leaders' efforts who will be the guests of UAE President His Excellency Sheikh Mohamed Ibn Zayed Al Nahyan, His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein will definitely participate in order to sign with world leaders documents relevant to the duty of taking practical and applicable measures so that the earth would not burn.
I had the honor to participate early this month in the International Conference of Religious Leaders, organized by the Muslim Council of Elders, which convened in Abu Dhabi. The conference excelled in its attendees, functionaries, and international initiatives especially in recent years. It is headed by His Eminence the sheikh of Al-Azhar, and its young secretary-general Dr. Mohamed Abdel Salam, who was in 2019 one of the main signatory of the Document on Human Fraternity, as he chaired the Interfaith Conference on Climate. This conference endorsed a message that represents the religious voice addressed to the heads of state participating in COP28, in order to encourage them to move forward in the direction of saving the Earth.
Lastly, Pope Francis' plane will fly over the Middle East again, heading to the UAE. He knows that this East is still aflame, and peace is still absent. He reiterated his several urgent calls: “Stop the war, rather in the name of God stop the war." We will not be able to look for a beautiful, beneficial, fruitful, and natural climate for humanity as long as the political climate is polluted by the sound of tanks, bombing, forcible displacement and destruction. Thus, we plead with the Almighty God to silence the war machine in beloved Gaza so that the participants in this meeting, who are staying on the noble UAE soil, can sign documents relevant to curtailing the rise in global temperatures at the environmental and political levels.