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from issue no. 01/02 - 2006

A memory of Zayed, Sheikh of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates

He knew how to say wonderful things about the cooperation between Christians and Muslims

by Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli O.F.M. Cap.

Monsignor Gremoli with Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan

Monsignor Gremoli with Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan

Under the wise and enlightened leadership of President Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates have become an open, peaceful, tolerant place, assuring security to all its inhabitants and to foreigners.
All Christians, Catholics and those of other denominations, have the freedom to practice their religion, they have their churches, they can move freely within the country to help those who are far from the city. Every church has its own enclosure where all the religious activities can be carried out, including processions, without being disturbed in any way. All the places of worship are protected, with discretion, by the police and nothing has ever happened to disturb religious gatherings.
There really exists a mutual respect between Muslims and Christians that permits us to move freely.
We Fathers wear our religious habit in the city and other parts of the Emirates without ever being disturbed or made objects of ridicule. I still remember the words that the Sheikh addressed to us on the occasion of a meeting with him: «I always want you Fathers to wear your religious habit so that everyone knows that you are men of God and all must respect you».
In 29 years in Abu Dhabi I never failed to wear the habit and I can guarantee that I found great respect everywhere, in the souk also and in places crowded with people.
I had occasion to meet President Zayed many times. Every time that some high ecclesiastic arrived, a cardinal or archbishop, he was very happy to meet him with great respect and to converse cordially with them.
During these meetings which often went on for a long time, I had the possibility of understanding the wisdom of this man who, even though not highly educated, knew how to say wonderful things about God, about cooperation between Christians and Muslims, and about the commitment to be united in safeguarding our spiritual and moral values.
I cannot forget the meeting His Highness had with Cardinal Josef Tomko, then Prefect of Propaganda Fide, who came to consecrate a church in Dubai in November 1989. During this long conversation, His Eminence was indeed amazed to hear from the Sheikh so many wise things about the relations between man and God, about the repudiation of all violence, about solidarity for the most needy in all religions, without excluding anyone, about the cooperation between nations, and the freedom to practice one’s own religion, in such a manner that everyone could turn to God in the way chosen. All concepts expressed with great wisdom and in beautiful language. When, afterwards, I had occasion to meet Cardinal Tomko in Rome, he always reminded me with admiration of this meeting with Sheikh Zayed.
President Zayed had, I would like to say, a sincere veneration for His Holiness John Paul II. He always spoke of him to me with great esteem and repeated: «Thank the Holy Father for all that he does for peace among people. What he says is always very interesting and wise and is also valid for us Muslims». Between them there was a very interesting exchange of letters, not only because they reveal the mutual esteem and respect, but also because of the various subjects dealt with among them those of international politics.
Unfortunately President Zayed, who was the same age as the Pope – as one of his sons assured me one day – left us on 2 November 2004. It was deeply felt loss not only by the Emirates, by the countries in the Gulf that he had succeeded in uniting in peaceful cooperation, but by all the countries of the Arab world and not only, as was attested by the hundreds of delegations who came to express their condolences. It was a great loss because with his prestige as a wise and balanced man he was highly regarded and listened to by the Arab League and other Muslim assemblies.
We organized a funeral service in the Cathedral for his repose, attended in large numbers by the diplomatic corps and many Christian and Muslim people. In the funeral speech, during the mass, I had occasion to express our feelings of great esteem for this wise man and all the sincere gratitude of Christians for what he was for us with such great generosity. I had lost a true friend.
The authorities thanked me with emotion for our prayers offered so solemnly and with such fervor.

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