The Pope's Historic Visit to the United Arab Emirates

The Pope's Historic Visit to the United Arab Emirates

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Shaun Casey, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, discusses the pope's historic visit to the United Arab Emirates, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Shaun Casey

Director, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Shaun Casey with us today for a discussion on the pope’s recent visit to the United Arab Emirates. Shaun Casey is director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and a professor of the practice at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is also senior fellow with the Luce Project on Religion and Its Publics at the University of Virginia. He previously was U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs and director of the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He has also held positions at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.; the Center for American Progress; and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has written on the ethics of war in Iraq, as well the role of religion in American presidential politics, and is the author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960 as well as the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Political Theology.

Shaun, thank you very much for being with us today. It’s great to have you here. I thought you could talk about the significance of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, what was announced there, and what it means going forward.

CASEY: Thank you very much, Irina. It’s great to be back on your call. And thanks to everybody else who’s dialed in.

The pope’s historic visit to the UAE over February 3 through 5 was a fascinating, substantive, and potentially a successful diplomatic foray. I think it’s fair to say that the visit has evoked a mountain of responses, primarily in the West, with commentary ranging from the cynical to the effusive. So in my short remarks at the top here I’m not going to try to survey that entire range of opinion. Rather, I’m going to try to highlight what I believe to be the more noteworthy aspects of what happened over that short three days. I’m going to group my thoughts under three headings: First, what was the pope trying to achieve; second, what did the UAE hope to gain by the visit; and third, what might be the more substantive outcomes from the time there.

So what was the pope trying to achieve? First of all, I think he had at least three things on his mind.

First, which is almost always the case when the pope travels to a country where the Roman Catholic Church is in the minority and also perhaps under some cultural pressure as a result, I think his approach and goals are pastoral; that is, he’s trying to encourage the faithful, trying not to make their lot worse by his visit, and working with national leaders to secure as much more tolerance and religious freedom as the circumstances will allow. The million or so Catholics in the UAE I think were certainly the beneficiary on all counts as a result of the pope’s time there.

Two, the pope spoke quite directly to the UAE government in public remarks in Rome literally hours before he boarded his plane to the UAE, and there he called for ending the carnage in Yemen. It was among the most direct political messages I think he has sent to any government as he was about to board a plane to go see them in hours, and I think a lot of commentators were surprised by his directness. In fact, several people had guessed that he would downplay any criticism of the UAE’s involvement in the—in the war in Yemen.

Three, I believe the pope was continuing to advance a message both in form and substance that he has enunciated from the beginning of his papacy, and that’s the need for Catholics to engage the Muslim world in deeper dialogue. Now, having called the deeper dialogue, it’s easier—it’s far easier to say that there’s a need for such dialogue. It’s much, much more difficult, I think, to actually construct, model, and commend real dialogue. And I think it’s important to see that the Vatican, with its very limited fiscal and human resources for its formal diplomacy, has built up a modestly impressive range of engagements. And if people have questions we might have time to elaborate on what that’s consisted of. But the global decentralization of Islamic political and religious authority further compounds the difficulty of building this sort of global interreligious dialogue. But given these constraints, I think Pope Francis is amassing a very interesting portfolio in this regard.

Now, in terms of substance, the document that was—that he signed along with the sheikh or the leader of Al-Azhar University in Cairo on human fraternity did offer some very interesting themes that caught a lot of attention. And these would include, first, the almost absolute observation that the divine forbids killing. Secondly, he talked—it talks about the instrumentalization of religion to incite war should stop on the part of religious leaders and communities. And more controversial was the claim that the pluralism and diversity of religions, color, sex, race, and language are willed by God in his wisdom. I think it’s safe to say there’s not a global consensus that that is actually true. The document also called for the promotion of the concepts of citizenship for all, which is especially noteworthy in that in the UAE most if not all Christians cannot become citizens. And then the document concluded with a very robust call for guaranteeing the essential rights of women and children and the elderly. And I think the fact that the pope and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, signed this document of consensus was really quite striking in that it contains sort of historical boilerplate language that is often found in these kinds of declarations, but I think there were some other key points that I just elaborated that were somewhat new.

Now let me turn to what the UAE might have been hoping to accomplish by the visit. Let me highlight three things here.

First of all, I think the UAE did it because they had the fiscal and political resources to do so. The Vatican doesn’t have those kinds of financial resources to bring hundreds of international religious leaders to the Vatican. So the symbolism of the pope coming to celebrate the lives of a million Catholics in the UAE under a more permissive form of religious tolerance than in some Gulf countries was a central part, I think, of the UAE’s strategy.

Related to that, the papal visit allowed the UAE to stand out among various Muslim-majority countries who are competing to shore up their regional and global influence, and to stand out in comparison to one another. The UAE’s embrace of what they call a moderate form of Islam over against what they apparently see as not-so-moderate options was put into favorable relief by the pope’s visit. Now, I don’t think anyone would call the status of Christians and other religious minorities in the UAE as a specimen of robust religious freedom. It is arguably a form of religious toleration that’s far beyond some forms of religious repression we find in the Gulf region.

And last, the UAE, by promoting the visit and the papal message of religious pluralism, risks or dares being held accountable, I think, for any gaps between their performance both with respect to religious minorities and with respect to their role in Yemen. They are sophisticated global players, and they have to know that global standards will now be applied to them as the evolve in light of the papal visit.

Let me conclude, then, with some thoughts on the outcomes or possible consequences to the visit.

First, if I am correct that the primary purpose of the visit was pastoral—that is, that he intended to shore up the morale, standing, and circumstances of Catholics in the UAE—I think it was a successful visit. I think it’s going to be very hard for the status of Catholics and all Christians in the UAE to be directly attacked or undermined, given the global publicity of the visit.

What, then, of the fate of the document on human fraternity for world peace and living together? Here I’m a little less sanguine. I think the global stage is littered with analogous high-minded principle statements from global religious elites over the past few decades. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence at hand to suggest that this mode of engagement changes facts on the ground very much, especially in the absence of global resources to fund grassroots dialogue across religious communities at the local level. But there seems to be an enduring attraction to this form of highly visible gatherings of religious leaders to sign high-minded declarations.

I was part of a private gathering here in Washington a week or so ago, and one of the participants declared that we had entered an era of what he called declaration culture fatigue. And I think that’s actually a very apt description. It’s hard to see that the policies enumerated in the call for human fraternity flowing easily around the world simply because seven (hundred) or eight hundred people around the world signed it. Interreligious dialogue may be a useful tool, but there seems to be a growing feeling that a professional class of global religious leaders need to spend less time in the great cities of the world in five-star hotels and more time working in neighborhoods and local religious communities.

So let me stop there.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you very much, Shaun. Let’s open it up to the group for questions and comments.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

And we have our first question from Michael Saahir with Nur-Allah Islamic Center. Sir, if you could state your question, your line is now live.

And we have our next question from Safwat Marzouk from Mennonite Religious Seminary.

Yes, if you could unmute your line?

Our next question comes from Yitzhak Yellin with Hillel Student Organizations of Israel.

YELLIN: Hi. Thanks, Professor. And you have quite a record at George Washington, and you’re rated very high by your students, and I thank you for your presentation.

Did you come across any kind of discussion about what’s happening with the Middle East in regards to Israel and the Palestinians, and particularly the anti-Semitism that is now flowing rather rapidly in Western countries with the BDS—the boycott and discrimination (sic; divestment) and sanctions—against Israel? Did that come up as a fact with the pope in Bahrain?

CASEY: That’s a great question. I’ve read the homily he gave at the public mass, I read his opening statement, and I’ve read the declaration. I don’t recall any specific direct allusion to either Palestinians or the rise of BDS or anti-Semitism. I think there may be some language where the pope ran a list of countries where conflict was active, and he may have simply said the Middle East kind of in generic language. I don’t recall anything specific to either Israel or Palestine. So to that extent no, I don’t think it was—I’m subject to verification on that, but it did not stand out.

Now, you know, the criticism that’s often raised against people like me who just criticize these big gatherings is, well, what actually transpired in the behind-the-scenes gatherings, of which there were several. And there was no readout that I have seen diplomatically from either side that lists a number of topics, which often happens when two heads of state or something meet with one another. But I really—I guess that’s a long, meandering answer simply trying to say I’m not aware that those topics came up.

YELLIN: Thank you very much.

CASEY: You’re welcome.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Michael Saahir with Nur-Allah Islamic Center.

SAAHIR: Yes, good evening. And please forgive me for my mistake before.

Yeah, I wanted to ask a question regarding as faith leaders I know within Islam and many of our interfaith circles that we shared many of the documents that were signed by or agreed to by Muhammad the prophet with the Christians of his day. And they have the treaty of—you know, with the monks of St. Catherine’s and the—and the other treaties, which Muhammad the prophet himself guaranteed peace with the Christians forever if you read it the way that it’s written. Did any of those type of discussions take place that you know of as faith leaders to where the actual founders, if you use that term, of the Islamic and the Christian religion, they were very tolerant during their time period?

CASEY: So that’s a great question. So there was, I guess—over a day, a day and a half of three-day visit—there was a convening of some several hundred international religious leaders. We don’t know the substance—or, at least, I’ve seen no record—of what was discussed. I don’t know what kind of preparatory documents were circulated. But I would hazard a guess, knowing a couple of the people personally who did go, that they are familiar with these kinds of historic documents. And they have been in many forums where they have been discussed. But you certainly raise the—or, certainly raise a fascinating question. What was the preparatory collection of documents that the people discussed, and what did they discuss? How is the conversation structured once they came together there in the UAE? And I simply can’t find any public record. But I think it’s not a stretch to assume that the people that were there were veterans of interreligious dialogue, and many of them would have participated in reading the kinds of documents you just described for us.

SAAHIR: Yes. OK, thank you. Because I’m sure that if it was known by both Muslims and Christians what Muhammad—what the Muhammad the prophet himself said with the Christians of Najran as well. And there were other treaties, you know, that—(inaudible)—would go a long way. Thank you very much. I do appreciate your sharing.

CASEY: Well, thank you. And I appreciate the sentiment of what you were discussing. I agree with that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Fred Stella with the Hindu American Foundation.

STELLA: Hello. My question is this: Could you elaborate a little bit more about the concept of pluralism being a God-ordained one? And it’s interesting because you have religions who seek to convert one to the other. And I’m wondering how that would play out logically in a society.

CASEY: Well, I think you point out one of the weaknesses of a document that’s produced, that clearly has been worked on by people behind the scenes but is presented as a climax of a two-and-a-half-day conversation. The statement in the actual document is fairly uninterpreted. It’s just a flat statement—I’m looking for it here—that it’s just in bullet point that says that the pluralism and diversity of religions, color, race, sex and language are willed by God in his wisdom, through which he created human beings. The divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as to the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.

That very pithy paragraph calls for interpretation and discussion, and we really don’t get it in the document. I think what they were hoping to do, that it’s statements like that this—that the document as a whole could in fact be part of a curriculum for people across various religions could sit down and debate, and discuss, and try to come into a common understanding of the meaning. I mean, as you know, pluralism itself is a highly controversial standing within many religions. And it’s not self-evident what you mean by pluralism. There are many valences to that term. And indeed, there were some conservative Catholic interpreters who rejected that notion, saying that the Catholic faith is the one true faith. So even within the Roman Catholic Church, I think that sentence would be contested. But I think their hope is that that would spur not just contestation, but actually some deep dialogue from different religious communities as to what they think that means.

STELLA: Perhaps more of a social pluralism, in that all religions should be allowed to live together. For instance, like, the United States, understanding the secular pluralism that we have. We’re not making any theological claims in our Constitution, in our Bill of Rights. We’re simply saying that we should all live together. And a higher power can figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. Would that be worth thinking?

CASEY: Well, I think that’s certainly a viable alternative. But I think there are a multiplicity of possible interpretations of that. And I think the balance of our hour is not enough time to sort through all of those options. But this is, I think, a noteworthy accomplishment, that these two—one Muslim leader, one Christian leader—had just simply made the bold affirmation that pluralism of religion is, in fact, from God. And I think, certainly in the Christian context, that has not always been the historical norm. I think that’s—on its own merit, that calls for more commentary and assessment.

STELLA: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from José Casanova with the Berkley Center at Georgetown University.

CASANOVA: Hi, Shaun. Thank you very much for your insightful comments.

I do agree with basically everything. And also I understand your more sanguine attitude concerning the signed document, and the declaration culture fatigue that you—(laughter)—basically refer to. However, I would put a little more positive spin to this document, given the European context, and given that the alternative type of interreligious coalition we see today is that of Evangelical Christians, right-wing, and the Moscow Patriarchate, directed very much at Europe, attacking the liberalism, the secularism, and basically Islam.

So in the context in which the alliance is against the enemy, and the enemy for many Europeans—including, of course, in Rome itself, with the president government just recently—Salvini and the pope had a kind of interesting conflicted dialogue over the reception of refugees in Italy. The fact that the pope precisely signed such a document with Islam in the European context is very positive. And I think that one has to—given the way in which the pope insists against the populist rejection of immigration and of Islam in Europe, that this is a more positive document than whatever these high-sounding documents imply.

CASEY: No, I would agree with that. I mean, I take your point. And certainly in the United States we face a version of that. That in many ways one could argue that the conservative Protestant Christians are at the heart of a lot of the engines of Islamophobia in our own country. But I think—I guess what I was trying to point to is the more pragmatic question: How do you start dialogues either in Europe and the United States between, say, conservative Protestant Evangelical Christians and Muslims? It’s very hard to see institutionally and pragmatically who is going to take this on as their mission and create these sorts of conversations. And I think that’s what—so guess my criticism is not one of concept. It’s one of lack of resources to implement.

And, you know, there’s a very robust paragraph, and at the end the declaration calls for people to study this document and to use it and to discuss it. And I don’t think those sorts of cultural dialogues go on without some institutional support and some actual institutional context. And that’s my fear, that we—at least in the West—oftentimes don’t have the civil society spaces where people are invited to come across some of the historical walls and divides. And that’s my anxiety, I think. But I take your point.

CASANOVA: No, and I understand. And if I may add just a comment on the question of pluralism and the theological basis for it, obviously there is a reference—indirect reference to the surah in the Koran where it’s said that God precisely wanted humanity to be plural, otherwise could have just made him one religion, one culture, one language. So this in itself is built into the Koran as a principle. But precisely the fact that you have conservative Catholics attacking this statement for religious reasons is the more significant, that the pope publicly supports it. So this is—the relevance of the statement is precisely given the resistance of conservatives, both Muslim and Catholic, which still maintain the notion of basically one true religion and the others are simply, you know, either infidels, or schismatic, or heretics, or simply idolaters. So in this respect, it points to a very significant statement and the need to take it seriously.

CASEY: Right. I was reading a conservative American Catholic commentator, who I will not identify, who in response to a question said: This can’t possibly mean what it seems to say on the face of it. So you’re right, I think there’s a lot of anxiety. The one thing I forgot, that I omitted from my remarks, was that in many ways I think France is actually implementing some of the inchoate impulses that are found in Nostra aetate from Vatican II in, you know, 1965. There they call—you know, to say the church regards with esteem also the Muslims. And there’s a couple of paragraphs. It’s really very rich and sort of evocative, if you’re willing to think and interpret it. And I think Francis is actually doing that now, in a way that previous popes have not done as robustly. And I think he’s to be commended for that.

FASKIANOS: Terrific. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Chung Lee with One Religion.

LEE: Hi. This is Chung Lee. I was there in person.

CASEY: Oh, great.

LEE: I think that the embassy of the Vatican was very open and honest about the situation. And then vice president of the UAE was coming, as well as grand imam from Egypt, also president of Muslim Arabs Council was—openly talked about what Islamic culture was receiving after 9/11. And then also the pope was very open about talking about the Yemen. And this was kind of a historic moment when they told it, read it, and discussed about it, and signed it in front of all of us. I think it was historic.

Also, I think the UAE, it did something very special. I learned that 200 nationalities live together, and they have a ministry of tolerance. So that was—that’s the extent of my experience there.

I—(inaudible)—again—(inaudible)—again and again of the human fraternity for world peace and living together. Why they actually say fraternity and leaving women out in this important document?

CASEY: I’m sorry, you’re asking why did they leave women in the document? Why did they exclude women?

LEE: The language of fraternity and the masculine language and why did they use this—

CASEY: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Well, I mean, there’s male language for God, I mean, if you read the whole document, that sort of some traditional language does apply there. I think the only—I mean, I can’t defend—I cannot defend the use of masculine language. I do think that in the closing paragraphs, they do have what I think I cited, the very interesting paragraphs about the essential requirement to recognize the right of women to education and employment. And that’s—and they talk about particularly sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, and things like that. So I take your point. I agree that that’s certainly problematic.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Chloe Breyer with The Interfaith Center of New York.

BREYER: Hi. Thank you so much. And I just wanted to remind us of the Common Word Between Us. As a model for, you know, a statement that really did seem to have legs in terms of—I know that the GHR had really supported ongoing work that stemmed from that exchange and statement. And I wonder if there might be anything in—and, you know, a certain amount of funding behind it. There were a lot of different people involved in creating the statement. But it really did seem to be a catalyst for quite a bit of action on the ground.

CASEY: Yeah, I think that—I think that’s accurate. I think that’s true. But at the same time, you know, when I joined the State Department I discovered very quickly that I could spend just about every weekend for every month I worked there in another beautiful European city, in another beautiful European hotel, seeing sort of the same set of, oh, one hundred to three hundred, quote/unquote, “global religious leaders,” and there was always some sort of high-minded statement or document that came out. And it became very clear to me, I had spent my entire diplomatic tenure doing just that, and not at all having an impact on the grounds.

I visited a Catholic university, Bethlehem University, once early in my tenure. And I went into a room full of faculty there. And there was a sociologist of religion sitting there with his arms folded and a frown on his face. And we got to the Q&A session. He was the first questioner. And he said: Dr. Casey, do you believe in religious dialogue as theater or as praxis? And I immediately laughed, because there is—I think there is a theatrical dimension to some—and I’m not calling out the pope on this, because I think what he did here was in many ways different. And this is not the only way he engages with the Muslim world. But there is a class of conveners for whom that’s what interreligious dialogue primarily means.

And I think as I look around those rooms and I sort of estimate the cost of flying hundreds of people to, yet again, another conference in Europe, I think that same amount of money, at the grassroots level, could actually convene and fund a tremendous amount of face-to-face grassroots conversations. So that’s just the point I’m making. So the products that come out of some of these global initiatives are fine. I’m sure they’ve made differences. But that kind of top-down approach I think is really never going to be a substitute for street-by-street, house of worship-to-house of worship exchanges and conversations.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Eduardo C. Vargas with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.

VARGAS: Thank you. Salaam. It’s good to speak with you. C. Eduardo Vargas, formerly with USAID—colleague at USAID.

CASEY: It’s great to hear from you. Thank you.

VARGAS: Yes. I actually had a—just a very quick question. Have you been able to pick up any chatter on any discussions that maybe the pope or the Holy See had with the UAE in the policy towards Yemen? And if you’ve been able to get any background information on that, that would be great. If not, you know, I’d be curious to see—or, to hear what type of influence you think the holy see could exert on UAE’s policy towards Yemen, you know, in light of the current situation. Thanks.

CASEY: No, that’s a great question, Eduardo. I have no insider knowledge. I haven’t picked up any chatter. But I would say, I think, one possible angle would be that the Vatican pointed him towards the, I guess, negotiations in Sweden, I believe it was, not very long ago, about trying to lead to a cessation of hostilities there. Now, let me hasten to add, I’m not an expert on the conflict in Yemen. But I think the Vatican oftentimes points governments to multilateral institutions that are proposing solutions to conflicts a specific country might be involved in. So many times the Vatican will say to a country that they think whose behavior may be problematic, join this conversation or support this negotiated settlement that this multilateral institution over here is supporting.

So that’s my hunch. It’s hard to imagine that in the private conversations the pope did not continue to raise in private what he had raised in public in Rome before he got on the plane. But my hunch is that the Vatican doesn’t usually arrive and say: Well, we’ve got a three-point plan here that’s going to solve the problem. So let us come in and take over the discussions. I think that’s not their role. Now, there may be unique cases—like, say, the relationships between Cuba and the United States, where the Vatican did in fact play a very specific brokering role in normalizing relations there. But I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. They don’t see themselves as brokers like that. They like to go to multilateral convenings and to bring people into those conversations.

So that’s my hunch, is that certainly the topic—if it was a topic fit for public declaration in Rome a few hours before he got on the plane, it’s hard to imagine that that did not come up in the—in the private discussions. But I am not privy to any of the content there. But it’s a great question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Safwat Marzouk, with the Mennonite Religious Seminary. Sir, your line is live and you can present your question.

MARZOUK: Thank you so much for this overview of the visit, of the folks. I have a few questions. I will try to be very brief and quick. The first is why Emirates? Why not Egypt, or Lebanon, where there is a real Catholic and Christian presence? The second aspect to that, the pope stands in for social justice. And I wonder if there was any conversation around economic practices of the UAE and the treatment of workers in the Gulf? And the last one I would like for you to comment on the limits of the idealization of the other. In other words, we need some sort of critical hermeneutics towards religion. So saying that this particular religion—whether Christianity or Islam is all about accepting the other while in reality there are some traditions within that same religion that actually exclude the other, doesn’t help. So we need more robust hermeneutical processes that actually turn these insights into laws and legal aspects that minorities could actually experience what it means to be an equal citizen. Thank you so much.

CASEY: OK, those are three really superb questions. I think the answer to your first question is simply the Emiratis invited the pope I think a year and a half, two years ago. Now, the pope has been to Egypt. I don’t know—the pope’s been to six or seven Muslim-majority countries now. He’s going to Morocco in March. I don’t know if he’s been to Lebanon. Now, he’s spoken about Lebanon at great length. But he is making a very interesting pilgrimage through a host of Muslim-majority countries. But in this case I think the Emiratis invited him. I don’t think he knocked on their door first.

Your second question about was there a discussion about the economic conditions of workers there from a social justice perspective? At least indirectly, if not directly. I mean, the reality is, as I understand it, the majority of the 900,000 to a million Catholics who are there, they’re primarily Indian and Filipino. And they are—they’re workers. In other words, they’re not citizens and they’re not natives to the country. So to the extent, if you read his sermon—which is a very interesting exegesis of the beatitudes, it was designed to encourage the plight of Catholic workers, sort of at the bottom of the economic scale there.

So I think indirectly in that public forum in the church, and then the mass was broadcast into the stadium, the message was—you couldn’t miss it. He was siding with the poor and with the oppressed there. And he was trying to rally them. And if you happened to be in the UAE government, you could not miss the message that the pope was there primarily to talk about the plight of the poor and marginalized. Now, there were—I don’t recall any sort of specific policy recommendations in public. And, again, I think the question comes to, well, what was the one-on-one conversation like behind the scenes? And did he offer any particular social justice criticisms about the plight of the poor and the marginalized workers there? And, again, I have no—I have no idea.

Now, I’m not sure I fully grasp your third question. If you’re saying that the essentialization of the other, as I all Muslims are A, B, and C, all Christians are D, E, and F, I think we do need a more robust hermeneutic of that, that rejects human and religious essentialism. And we do need a hermeneutic that argues that even religious minorities are in fact equal, not only in the eyes of God, but should be equal in the eyes of all people and all governments. I think that would be a good thing. And I think the recognition that people within various religious groups and affiliations are internally plural—they’re not all uniform. There’s no essence of being Islam. There’s no essence of being a Christian. I think that is a message that we all need to carry in our daily lives.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Michael Driessen with John Cabot University.

DRIESSEN: Hello. Thank you very much for your presentation, Shaun.

I fully agree that there are very good reasons to be suspicious of the UAE’s intentions over interreligious dialogue given the geopolitics and the authoritarianism they uphold. But I just wanted to push a little bit on the declaration fatigue, and particularly maybe try to make a pitch that this is something new. I’ve been working on research on the declarations which have been coming out of the Muslim-majority world on interreligious dialogue over the last fifteen years. And I would argue that we’ve seen a shift ideologically, sort of a movement over time from something that was more based just on getting dialogue started, to sort of an embrace of religious liberty, to finally this call for citizenship, which is new.

It’s not the Marrakesh Declaration. It’s not really in—I mean, beginning in there. It’s not in the A Common Word. So there seems to be some shift over time, some buildup over time, and ideological progression which is noteworthy, and I think is representative of a broadening consensus. But I don’t know if you share that, if you think this is just one of many high-minded or well enough that there’s something actually new within that document. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

CASEY: No, I agree with that. I do, in fact—I agree with your assessment that there has been a philosophical and rhetorical shift in some of the documents. And I think Marrakesh is a good example of that. But, again, you know, and I know people who were involved and who are still involved in the Marrakesh declaration. And I keep asking them: What is your—what is your plan for distribution? What is your plan for talking to various governments? How do you get people in pluralistic political settings looking at this document and talking about the implications of citizenship?

And I have to say, I think when people plan these kinds of large documents, there is very much a top-down approach that is more focused on the production of the document and the dissemination of the document to groups of elites. And what’s often missing is a matching commitment to taking this message to the streets, taking it to the mosques, taking it to the churches, taking it to the synagogues. And I guess that’s the fatigue part. If some of that energy and money could be spent on developing curricula that could be disseminated across wide platforms at the local level. I mean, did a global poll, who has heard of the Marrakesh Declaration and read it, you’re not going to get—you’re not going to get much recognition, I’m afraid.

But I do take your point. There has been evolution, I think, at the philosophical, even the theological, level. But in terms of grassroots impact, I guess I’m still—I hope to be converted on this, but I’m skeptical about the practical grassroots impact.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Khosro Mehrfar with the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.

MEHRFAR: Shaun, and hello everybody.

Shaun, I’m going to propose a bigger-picture question here, and I need your advice on proposed possible solutions. You know, I believe that you’ve hit the heart of the matter when you mention about the five-star hotels for these meetings. (Laughter.) I do believe that those are necessary, those meetings, but not sufficient. You know, the respectful religious leaders, global leaders of religions, can meet any day. And that’s a good thing. That’s a great thing. But as long as the message of peace and coexistence has not realistically propagated to the masses of the people, and at the base in the locality of where they live, that—you know, it will be hard—it will be hard to achieve main goal of respect and tolerance globally.

So my question is, how really to do that, especially leveraging on the high tech to reach the masses, and specifically the youth? You know, with their hand-held, the world is the palm of their hands. So how can we do that? And has there been any plan, any thought about doing it proactively for the future of humans, you know, to be more respectful, to accept each other, knowing that we can reach a large billions, probably, population of the emerging demographic, which are the youth of the world, with any belief that they have, through the technology? So I would be curious.

I’m very optimistic, by the way, that it’s doable. I was just wondering if any thought has been given to this idea I’m proposing.

CASEY: I think the answer is yes. I can think of—let me tell a story from my State Department days. You know, one of the things that we tried in the Office of Religious and Global Affairs, is that we tried to distinguish between, for lack of a better term, official religion versus lived religion. You know, you can go into a country that has a government-appointed religious leadership group, and you’re going to get a government-approved message when you say, well, what’s going on in your religious community? What’s the state of interreligious dynamics in your country? And you know that if they’re on the government payroll, you’re going to get the government-approved message.

But the second thing is, those kinds of leaders rarely have a feel for what happens at the grassroots, what happens at the street level. And we were constantly looking for ways to tap into local religious leaders, who often gave us a much more detailed, and intricate, and nuanced picture of what the religious dynamics were in a country. So we tried to commend to American embassies—which routinely engage political parties in and out of power, they engage dissidents, they engage all kinds of civil society actors. But they were often reticent to engage religious actors in just asking: What’s going on in your country? We would encourage embassies to reach out to local religious communities and build relationships there so that they could interpret the religious dynamics of the country with more accuracy back to Washington. And, if nothing else, mitigate stupid American policy, if not actually find better policy to negotiate with countries.

So embassies are listening posts. They build relationships across civil society, from the bottom to the top. And we tried to argue that don’t be satisfied with national religious leaders, but actually reach out to local communities to understand what their views of the country where. So that’s one way, because these kinds of conversations are actually going on at the street level, in the workplace, and out in public life. In Nigeria, for instance, we discovered a very interesting group of young coders for cellphone apps. And we were able to bring this group of young cellphone coders to local mosques and local Christian congregations, and equip them with technology on their iPhones, where they could report public corruption that they saw in their cities, and then report them up to elected national officials.

So technology, I think, is being used across the world now to communicate to local communities and put power in the hands of local actors, sometimes local religious actors, to blow whistles on public corruption. So that’s one—that’s one space where I have seen the empowerment of local communities. So we started an initiative there which is now run by an interfaith—or, an interreligious coalition of Muslim and Christian leaders, empowering mosques and Christian congregations to report public corruption that they see at the local level to the national government.

So I agree with you. I think that the technology—now, the problem is, as I am, I’m an old man, right? I don’t know how to code. I don’t know how to build apps on the iPhone. So there is this technology gap between youth and, say, their parents’ generation. But I do think that there are—there are people working on these kinds of platforms to bring people together across a broad range of topics, including the ability of religious communities to interact with one another. So it’s a great question.

MEHRFAR: I’m so glad—I am so glad to hear that. It’s very encouraging. And thank you for enlightening us about that activity going on. Thank you.

One thing I just need to add, if I may, is that how credible, how reliable is the info that we received from those local religious leaders, living in their country, that may be controlled by the government. You know, how—how do they scale? Is the information as accurate as it should be? Or how credible you believe those information are?

CASEY: Well, I mean, there’s no simple answer to that. I think the kinds of—any kind of information you get from local actors, it has to be validated, same’s true of national leaders too. If you’re in the complex world of diplomacy, you’re always having to verify, and you can never really take anything as absolute truth. And that’s just part of the instability that’s inherent in diplomatic conversations.

MEHRFAR: Thank you, Shaun.

FASKIANOS: Next question. Thank you, next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Anwar Khan with Islamic Relief USA.

Q: Hello? Can you hear me?

CASEY: Hi, Anwar. Good to hear from you.

KHAN: Hi. Good. Sorry. It’s more of a comment. And I’d like to hear what you have to say about it. I’m very happy that the pope went to the Gulf. Just want to make it clear, most Muslims in the world are not Arab. Only 20 percent are Arab. The number of Muslims in UAE is very small compared to many other places. What was being said there is great. However, the way that some people are talking about it in the media, it’s as if the Imam of Al-Azhar of the UAE are the spokespeople for over a billion Muslims around the world. What I found was that certain people seemed to be invited to represent their faith at these events—whether they be with the government or on the government-approved list.

But a lot of the work that’s going on right now, the interfaith work, is not being done at that level. It’s being done at the grassroots level, community level. We’ve witnessed that here in America, our own organization, and in the over forty countries that we work around the world. So there’s a lot of work being done, whether it’s humanitarian work or it’s other civil society work. This doesn’t seem to be represented in the five-star hotels. But this is the real work that’s going on every single day. So we’re really happy that the pope went to UAE. It’s wonderful. I love the pope. I wish he went to every country.

But I just want to be clear that as far as Muslims are concerned, we don’t have any equivalent of the pope. There’s no country, there’s no leader that speaks for all of us. But there are so many different groups who are doing good and bad work. We’re not always doing always everyone in the name of their faith is doing necessarily good work. But some of that is being done, but we’re not hearing about it. And I know, Shaun, you are aware of a lot of those efforts that are being done. If you can maybe tell us why maybe they’re not being included in conferences like this?

CASEY: Well, Anwar, I’m in complete agreement with that. I mean, the—what the UAE has, maybe, nine, ten million people living in it. And the majority are not—are not Arabs. So I mean, your point is very well-taken. And that’s one reason why you can’t—you cannot assume that someone claims to represent hundreds of millions of people. That may or may not be true. And that’s really why I think the declaration culture, if you will, is not—it’s not often from the grassroots up. It is top down. And so you get three hundred people around a table hammering out a declaration. And one of the reasons it isn’t disseminated, oftentimes, is because the designers, and authors, and editors do not themselves have the connectivity to the ground. That makes this work so much more difficult.

And I think too, a lot of American Christians analogize off of their understanding of the polity and organization of Christian communities into the Muslim world. So there’s a pope who’s head of the Catholic Church. There’s an archbishop of Canterbury presides over the Anglican Communion. Then in the Muslim world, there must be one or two people who have the same role. And as you point out, that’s simply not true. And as I think I alluded to, when Pope Francis early on says, we need to establish a dialogue with the Muslim world, I think they were immediately confronted with the complexity of the Muslim world. And, again, as you say, the Middle East is not where the majority of the world’s Muslims live. And yet, again, I think a lot of Westerners think, well, that’s the place to start, because that’s where all the Muslims are.

So there’s a lot of ignorance on the—kind of the—in the West, many times, about global Islam, in terms of its complexity, its decentralization, its different schools of thought. But then that—then that does raise the question you raised, how do you do a local and grassroots work? And it’s painstaking. It’s slow. It’s difficult, because it’s complicated. And too often, we want to settle for stereotypical leaders as being the spokesperson for large groups of religious folk. And we miss a lot. We suffer a lot as a result of that naiveite.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think we have time for one last question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Gerald Liu with Princeton Theological.

LIU: Hello. Thank you for taking the question. Can you hear me?


LIU: OK, great. Thanks for your candor, and for laying out points for our consideration with expert precision, Professor Casey. It was really refreshing for me to hear you. I have an anchoring question with more textured qualification and curiosities, and I’ll try to zoom through this because we’re short on time. My anchoring question for you, as a professor of practice, is what are the practices that you teach or that you believe should be taught in order to counter the impotence of highly visible gatherings with high-minded declarations that do not mean much? So what are those practices?

And then my longer qualification is this: Especially when the popular image of Catholicism now is more associated with scandals related to clergy sexual abuse, sexuality. And there’s an increasing allergy, at least in the West, toward Protestantism in general, whether it’s Evangelical, liberal Protestant, or Ecumenical. And we could go on with this. In sort, Christianity just is less and less believable, even if it’s in its most progressive forms. And I think here in the States, the byproduct of that is because nationhood is so tied to Protestantism—arguably, historically—folks wonder why bother with the theological dimension of public issues at all. So one way to build upon your candor about the usefulness of the visits, like the pope’s visit to the UAE, is maybe the ennui that you’re expressing is another permutation of the rest of the world wondering why they should care?

You know, even grassroots conversations, such as Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Forum—(coughs)—excuse me—or secular corollaries like the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project, championed by David Brooks, these seem to evaporate into a kind of shiny and popular engagement that also could be characterized as a veneer for the kind of real talk that I think you’re recommending. So, you know, and I even teach worship and preaching. These are ministerial practices that often seem insignificant, and yet we see how proclamations of extremists, whether they be Islamists, right-wing Christians, or even our president, can change culture, and how ritualized violence has dramatic effect.

I mean, for example, the number of Muslim of refugees to the United States has fallen by 91 percent since the 2016 fiscal year. So why do inflated words work for some and not for others? And what are the alternative practices that we should consider? Thank you.

CASEY: Well, I just—we have a range of graduate degrees at Georgetown you can enroll in. (Laughs.) Those questions are large, and deep, and transcend the ability of me to answer them in two minutes. Yeah, I will take your larger point. I mean, institutionally and globally there’s a crisis of authority across most major, even many minor religions. And I don’t like that language of major and minor, but where in the United States do you look, and do you see a thriving religious sector? And it is pretty grim now. There are multiple explanations for why that is true. And I don’t want to go too far down that road. But I don’t think there’s any grand narrative that suddenly is going to redeem global or even national Christianity in the United States. I think there are multiple forces at work here. And you’ve alluded to some of them.

I think part of—if there is going to be any resurgence—and, again, I’m not necessarily convinced there’s going to be—I think a lot of it has to do with reform at the congregational level. I think in the Christian world, there’s been universal neglect of excellence at the congregational level. And I think that’s true for mainline Protestants. I think that’s true for Catholic parishes. And it’s certainly true now in the Evangelical world. Not many seminaries put it at the heart of their mission to train strong congregational laity and clergy leaders. We’ve moved onto other topics. And somehow tending to the actual business of running a parish has suffered. And I think we’re paying a price for that now generationally.

But, yeah, come to Georgetown and take some courses. We’ll have time to chew on that in great length. But I don’t have a—I don’t have a one-size fits-all answer to a very complex question there. Sorry to disappoint.

FASKIANOS: Well, Shaun, thank you very much for sharing your valuable insights with us today, and to all of you for your excellent questions and comments. I’m afraid we are out of time.

CASEY: Thank you very much. It is great to be back in touch.

FASKIANOS: It is absolutely. And we hope that you will continue to follow Shaun Casey’s work at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. And follow him on Twitter at @ShaunCasey57. We also encourage you also to follow us, CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program, on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest resources from CFR and Foreign Affairs. Please do send us an email to [email protected] with any suggestions of future calls or topics we should cover. So thank you all again. We look forward to your continued participation in this initiative. And thank you to Shaun Casey.


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