VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Welcoming the United Arab Emirates’ first ambassador to the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI underlined the church’s role in promoting peace and human rights.
He also praised the Emirates’ efforts in protecting the religious freedom of the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers who live within its borders and its policy of allowing the building of churches on donated land.
“I assure you of the desire of the Catholic Christians present in your country to contribute to the well-being of your society, to live God-fearing lives and to respect the dignity of all peoples and religions,”the pope told Hissa Abdulla Ahmed al-Otaiba, the new ambassador.
Presenting her letters of credential to the pope May 20, al-Otaiba said she was pleased and honored to have been appointed the first ambassador to the Vatican, and she promised to “spare no effort in strengthening friendly relations” and cooperation between the two countries.
The Vatican and the United Arab Emirates, a federal union made up of seven states, established full diplomatic relations in 2007.
Located on the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates has a combined population of about 4.8 million people, but more than 80 percent are noncitizen guest workers. The vast majority of the citizens are Muslims, but many of the guest workers belong to other religious traditions. According to government figures, 9 percent of the resident population is Christian, and 15 percent is “other,” such as Hindu and Buddhist.
While the seven emirates recognize Islam as the state religion, freedom of worship is guaranteed.
There are seven Catholic churches in the country and members of religious orders staff several private schools.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report, building a church in the Emirates requires requesting a land grant from a local ruler. While the ruler maintains ownership of the land, the church is not required to pay rent and it owns the building.
In his speech to the new ambassador, Pope Benedict noted “with satisfaction” the presence of several Catholic churches built on land donated by government authorities. He asked that “this cooperation may continue and indeed flourish, according to the growing pastoral necessities of the Catholic population living there.”
“Freedom of worship contributes significantly to the common good and brings social harmony,” the pope said.
He praised the Emirates’ openness to foreign workers and commended the country’s efforts in trying to create and strengthen “the conditions necessary for peaceful coexistence and social progress.”
The foreign workers who move to the Emirates’ “enrich the state not only by their labor but by their very presence, which is an opportunity for a fruitful and positive encounter between the world’s great religions, cultures and peoples,” he said.
The pope said the church’s mission in serving the international community, especially through its diplomatic relations, is to promote peace, human rights and full human development as well as to work for the “authentic progress of all, without regard for race, color or creed.”