Documentary chronicles historic religious brotherhood in United Arab Emirates

Pope Francis shakes hands with Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque and University, during a document signing during an interfaith meeting at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, February 4, 2019, file photo. The journey is captured in the new documentary film “Amen-Amen-Amen”. (CNS / Paul Haring)

Rome – Monument of Pope Francis in 2019 document on The “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” is widely regarded as a major advance in the relations of the Catholic Church with the Muslim world. The document, which was signed in Abu Dhabi when Francis became the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula, calls for a “culture of mutual respect” – and has been hailed by Islamic, Jewish and Christian leaders around the world.

Documentary filmmaker Tom Gallagher was present for this historic occasion and in his new documentary film “Amen-Amen-Amen,” Gallagher takes viewers on life in the United Arab Emirates and how new currents in the Arab nation have come to sum up Pope Francis’ vision in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti of brotherhood, dialogue and mutual friendship.

In particular, the documentary tells how, for the first time in history, a Torah scroll was created and offered to a Muslim leader. Along with the film’s release, NCR spoke with Gallagher (a former NCR contributor) about why he thinks the move gives a vivid expression to Pope Francis’ call for religious pluralism.

RNC: You are a Roman Catholic. Why did you want to tell the story of an Arab nation’s relations with its Jewish inhabitants?

Gallagher: In December 2018, I was in Abu Dhabi to speak at a peace forum and then I met [retired New York University President] John Sexton and a group he hosted at NYU Abu Dhabi. When John told me the news that the Jewish community in the Emirates wanted to offer a Torah scroll to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, I knew immediately as a storyteller that this story had to be turned into a documentary.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that having this story told by a Catholic was probably the best way to do it. No one could accuse me of leaning one way or the other, and as a Christian I was obsessed with the accuracy of the details of Islam and Judaism, and the transmission of their teachings, of their story and that story to a wider audience.

I also felt that this story needed to be told because Christians in the West generally do not have a good understanding of the Middle East. I want this film to address, in part, this misunderstanding.

You were in the United Arab Emirates for Pope Francis’ historic trip there in February 2019, which of course is captured in this film. What memories do you have of those two days and how do you assess the long-term effect of this trip on Judeo-Muslim relations on the peninsula?

There was real excitement in the air in the days leading up to the Pope’s arrival and upon his arrival. It is important to remember that the Emirates represent only 10% of the total population of the United Arab Emirates. Thus, 90% of the population are non-Emiratis who come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and other countries. It is a very diverse country. This diversity and welcoming atmosphere underlie the nascent Judeo-Muslim relations in the Gulf. The Pope’s visit brought all of this to the fore. Remember, he was the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula and celebrate mass there. This visit really showed the world the religious diversity of the UAE. Our documentary focuses on one particular aspect of this diversity, the Jewish presence, which is particularly remarkable.

The late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, made “welcoming strangers” a vital civic virtue in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, in February 2021, a new organization was formed called the Association of Jewish Communities in the Gulf to promote the development of Jewish life in the Gulf region. The region is therefore well on the way to deepening positive Judeo-Muslim relations.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (Courtesy Tom Gallagher)

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (Courtesy Tom Gallagher)

The document on human brotherhood prompted backlash conservative Catholics, including some of Francis’ own cardinals. Have you seen a comparable reaction in the Jewish or Arab world?

One of the most important outcomes of Pope Francis’ historic trip to the United Arab Emirates was the signing of the Human Brotherhood Document. I was present at the signing ceremony. What struck me was the warm relationship between Pope Francis and Dr Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar of Egypt, the Sunni religious and academic leader. In fact, Dr. el-Tayeb [was] in the Vatican [in October] with Pope Francis and other religious leaders on the urgent issue of climate change.

I haven’t seen a comparable reaction in the Jewish or Arab world. In a global environment of growing anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sectarian violence and growing nationalism, the repeated rapprochement of Pope Francis and Dr. el-Tayeb should serve as a tangible example of peace, friendship and cooperation among people of different religious traditions.

One of the most important lessons from this film is that historically, relations between Jews and Muslims have been better than relations between Christians and Jews, and between Christians and Muslims. The conflicts and tensions of the past decades are more of a historical anomaly, and this document of human brotherhood is something Jews and Muslims would consider consistent with their long shared history.

Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar Mosque and University, sign documents during an interfaith meeting on February 4, 2019 at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, Arab Emirates United.  (CNS / Paul Haring)

Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque and University, sign documents during an interfaith meeting on February 4, 2019 at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi, Arab Emirates United. (CNS / Paul Haring)

The Abrahamic family home will soon open as a monument to the three great Abrahamic religious traditions. Do you see this as a physical manifestation of what Pope Francis was talking about in his encyclical? Fratelli Tutti?

No doubt about it. And I would like to point out that the Abrahamic Family House is going to be an active campus of three religious traditions practicing their religious traditions. These emblematic places of worship will not be museums to browse and admire, but active and flourishing congregations so close to each other that a “social and peaceful meeting” between Jews, Muslims and Christians will naturally take place. These places of worship on a campus will certainly become destinations for religious tourists, but they will be fundamentally active congregations.

Very early in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis underlines “the life of Saint Francis who shows his openness of heart, who knew no limits and transcended differences of origin, nationality, color or religion. It was his visit to Sultan Malik-el-Kamil, Egypt. … ”Here, Pope Francis shows the way to a love of God that knows no boundaries and welcomes people from different religious traditions. It would be wonderful and fitting if the church of the Abrahamic Family House was named after Saint Francis of Assisi.

I would also say that visually, the section on the Abrahamic Family Home is the most captivating. It’s amazing how these three places of worship – a mosque, a synagogue, and a church – rendered on the same site in the same style but all inspired by elements of their own religious and cultural traditions are amazing. It’s going to be mind-blowing.

We have just celebrated the first anniversary of the Abrahamic accords. The Vatican was relatively silent on this matter. As they continue to take effect and deepen, do you expect stronger vocal support for the Holy See on this front?

The normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain is an important step in the Gulf region. No doubt about it. The Abrahamic Accords are, however, a continuation into modern times of normalization among people of many faiths and some 200 nationalities living in the United Arab Emirates. There are over 40 religious traditions in the UAE that date back over 50 years.

The UAE’s first Catholic church, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, was opened in 1965 on 11 acres of land donated by the Muslim ruler of Abu Dhabi. Jews have lived in the United Arab Emirates for decades. Bishop Paul Hinder, who heads the Apostolic Vicariates of North and South Arabia, is a visible presence in the United Arab Emirates and in the wider region.

When we look at the whole of Pope Francis’ engagement with the United Arab Emirates, his friendship and collaboration with Dr. el-Teyab, with the signing of the document on human fraternity, and the upcoming establishment of the church Within the framework of the House of the Abrahamic Family, it seems to me that the Vatican is appropriately invested in the Gulf region and in developing a constructive relationship with Muslims both in the Gulf and in the world. And Pope Francis gives the example of Saint Francis of Assisi in Fratelli Tutti as a model of friendship with people of different religious traditions, in particular with Muslims.

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