The Holy See in the Arabian Peninsula,
a New Path for Religious Coexistence?
by Leone Radiconcini
On 4 February 2022, the substitute of the Vatican State Secretary, Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, was in Abu Dhabi to inaugurate the newly established Apostolic Nunciature to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), i.e. the Vatican embassy, greatly enhancing UAE-Vatican relations. The event was also attended by many other relevant representatives both from the Holy See and the Emirati government, such as Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia, and Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth for the UAE.
Archbishop Peña Parra highlighted the significance of the move: ‘the meaning of the opening of a Nunciature in this country is very simple. It is [that] the Holy Father will have a house here. […] It has a spiritual meaning: the closeness of the Holy Father to the country, and at the same time it is an upgrade of the relations between the two states.’
Diplomatic relations between the UAE and Holy See were established in 2007 and have significantly advanced since then. Until now, Kuwait was the only country in the GCC to host a Nunciature. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the GCC countries, Kuwait’s Nunciature was the centre of the Holy See policies in the region. It is named the Apostolic Delegation to the Arabian Peninsula and maintained all the channels of communications with the countries of the Peninsula, including Yemen. Three different Nuncios (i.e., ambassadors) took office since its opening, but the post has been vacant from 2020. Now, with the implementation of a residential embassy in the UAE, the possibilities of further cooperation will critically increase.
The date of the Embassy’s opening — 4 February — commemorates the three-year anniversary of the signing of the historic “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” during Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, which called all the religions of the world to join forces in reiterating their fundamental values of peace and tolerance. The day was also proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as the “International Day for Human Fraternity” since 2021 upon the initiative of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
According to UAE’s constitution, freedom of religion is guaranteed and protected by state authorities, every person is equal before the law and discrimination on grounds of religious belief is prohibited. However, the Emirati penal code prohibits blasphemy and proselytising by non-Muslims. Nevertheless, some of the most recent laws introduced in the country have the goal of promoting tolerance and coexistence between religious groups. In this sense, the creation of the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith complex in Abu Dhabi set to open in 2022, will be a physical representation of the new path followed by the Emirati leadership.
According to the latest data available, UAE citizens (approximately 1 million people) are mostly Sunni Muslims (89%) while the non-citizen residents (about 9 million) profess different religions and confessions, from Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism to the various branches of Islam. In such context, freedom of religion represents and increasingly relevant topic for state authorities, which are implementing different policies to provide support to minority religious groups. The establishment of the Nunciature should be perceived as another step in this direction and an important asset for the framework of religious coexistence the UAE authorities are pursuing. This policy, indeed, perfectly fits in UAE Vision 2021, which predicated a more inclusive and cohesive society, and in UAE Centennial 2071, a five-decade long-term plan which envisions the future of Emirati society.
Similarly, Pope Francis is promoting inter-confessional and inter-religious dialogue all over the globe and therefore looking for expanding the network of religious figures and organisations that have peace, tolerance, and coexistence between religious groups as their core values. In order to do so, it appears necessary to promote good relations with Islamic countries and creating residential Nunciatures is an important part of this process. The UAE could take the lead in promoting the inter-religious dialogue in the Arabian Peninsula, thanks to its improving relations with the Holy See, and create a channel of communications between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and the Vatican.
All this considered, the opening of the Nunciature represents a milestone in the improvement of UAE-Vatican relations. On this subject the following policy recommendations can be made:
Create a Nunciature in all GCC countries. The opening of the UAE embassy is a good sign of improvement of relations, however, if the Holy See wants to properly support inter-religious dialogue in the region, it needs to have a direct channel of communications with all the GCC countries. Moreover, the UAE could help the Holy See opening diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and Oman and, consequently, a Nunciature, in a longer term.
Cooperating in addressing regional religious and humanitarian issues. The Holy See can play a relevant role in the region by supporting inter-religious dialogue and help prevent religious conflicts, as well as extremism and radicalisation. Moreover, the interest of the Holy See in humanitarian issues could represent an asset for improving the problems in the Arabian Peninsula.
Support the national policies for religious tolerance. As many countries in the area are improving the legal framework to support religious minorities, the Vatican can offer an important support in defining the most relevant issues to tackle to support religious coexistence.
10 February 2022
Ashwani Kumar, “UAE: Pope's top aide inaugurates Vatican Embassy in Abu Dhabi”, Khaleej Times, 05/02/2022, https://www.khaleejtimes.com/uae/uae-popes-top-aide-inaugurates-vatican-embassy-in-abu-dhabi
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“Document On Human Fraternity For World Peace And Living Together”. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/travels/2019/outside/documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html
“Interview with Archbishop Pena Parra, Substitute of the Secretariat of State for the Holy See”, Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYbgAB7auUI&ab_channel=ApostolicVicariateofSouthernArabia
Courtney Mares “Vatican opens its first embassy in Abu Dhabi”, Catholic News Agency, 04/02/2022 https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/250295/vatican-opens-its-first-embassy-in-abu-dhabi
“2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: United Arab Emirates”, U.S. Department of State, 12/05/2021, https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/united-arab-emirates/#:~:text=It%20states%20all%20persons%20are,and%20proselytizing%20by%20non%2DMuslims.
UAE Constitution, Art. 25, Part Three “Freedom, Rights and Public Duties”, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/ae/ae030en.pdf
UAE Penal Code, Art. 312, Title 5, “Crimes Violating Religious Creeds and Rites”, https://elaws.moj.gov.ae/UAE-MOJ_LC-En/00_PENALTIES%20AND%20CRIMINAL%20MEASURES/UAE-LC-En_1987-12-08_00003_Kait.html?val=EL1#:~:text=No%20one%20shall%20be%20answerable,presumed%20innocent%20until%20proved%20guilty.&text=Unless%20otherwise%20provided%2C%20the%20provisions,for%20in%20other%20penal%20laws.
 Archbishop Pena Parra, “Interview”, 05 February 2022, available at Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia Youtube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYbgAB7auUI&ab_channel=ApostolicVicariateofSouthernArabia