Dr Michele Ziolkowski Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: The historic visit of Pope Francis to the UAE next week will be “witnessing the concepts of inclusion and tolerance on a grand scale,” says Australian-born Emirati Dr Michele Ziolkowski.

The Pope’s Apostolic Visit, from February 3-5, is taking place early in the UAE’s Year of Tolerance, which has been designated as the theme of the year by President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Raised as a Catholic at home in Australia, Dr Ziolkowski first came to the UAE twenty five years ago, in 1993, to pursue her studies of local archaeology, and subsequently earned her PhD for a thesis on the archaeology of the UAE’s East Coast.

“Eighteen years ago,” she said, “I married an Emirati from Fujairah, and we have a son who recently celebrated his 12th birthday. During our marriage ceremony, the shaikh said that our union was important for the coming together of two cultures at a time when the world needs more understanding and tolerance. His comments resonated with me, and I hoped that we could help to build that bridge.”

Recently naturalised as a UAE citizen, and now also an author of children’s books, she says that she is “very proud of my new home country.”

Looking back to her first visit to the UAE, Dr Ziolkowski told Gulf News she feels as though today, there is a greater awareness of the concept of multiculturalism in the UAE.

“With encouragement from the UAE leadership we have learnt to be more respectful and understanding not just of different cultures and religions but also of individuals with developmental and/or physical challenges,” she said.

Dr Ziolkowski explained that UAE enjoys an open dialogue concerning issues of respect for everyone in the community, with evident positive changes witnessed over the years.

“When you realise that there are more than 200 nationalities living in harmony in the UAE, that’s something quite incredible,” she added.

“The UAE’s positive acknowledgement of diversity and common humanity has been inspiring on a personal level too,” Dr Ziolkowski adds. “With Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE, we are witnessing the concepts of inclusion and tolerance on a grand scale.”

“Many of us,” she adds, “will also celebrate this event and this Year of Tolerance on a more personal level. For me, as a parent of a child with autism, the principles of tolerance, understanding and acceptance are dreams I hope for my son and his future. As the UAE lays the seeds of tolerance and the concept of shared humanity, it also paves the way for the inclusion of people of determination within the community.”

The UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, has been the seat of the Catholic Church’s Apostolic Vicariate of South Arabia since the 1970s, while the first Catholic church in the country opened in the 1960s. Official diplomatic relations between the UAE and the Vatican started in 2007. His visit will coincide with one by the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar, Dr Ahmad Al Tayeb.