By Russell Pollitt SJ

Some of the most informative and interesting insights into what Pope Francis does and thinks are revealed on the papal plane on international journeys. From the beginning of his Pontificate, Francis has always spent time with journalists when travelling. He spontaneously answers questions, talks and jokes with journalists.

This past week was no different. He visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from 3-5 February. Pope Francis is the first pontiff ever to visit the Arabian Peninsula. This was his 27th Apostolic Visit and the 41st nation he has visited since his election in 2013.

During the visit, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, signed a joint declaration on ‘Human Fraternity.’ In the declaration they call for all concerned parties to promote religious freedom, protect places of worship and offer citizenship, even to religious minorities.

On the return flight to Rome, he spoke about the abuse of religious sisters by clergy, the desperate situation in Venezuela, the Church and Islam, Christian persecution and religious freedom.

The Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, recently raised the issue of the abuse of religious women by priests in a series of articles. The Pope told journalists that he cannot say that this is not a problem in the Church. He said that the Church is working on this. “Some priests have been removed [from priesthood] because of this.” He explained that some female religious orders have been suppressed due to “sexual corruption,” even at the hands of their founder.

Pope Benedict XVI suspended a female congregation in France – the Order of St Joan – as the founder was accused of sexually abusing members.

The Pope revealed that when Benedict XVI was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), he had wanted to suspend the congregation for “sexual and economic corruption”. Francis said that he failed because at a meeting with Pope John Paul II and others he “lost”. It was only later, after becoming Pope, that Benedict was able to act on this.

Commenting on the situation in Venezuela, Pope Francis said that he had received a letter from leader Nicolas Maduro asking for help in facilitating dialogue in that country. Asked whether the Holy See would do this Francis said: “We’ll see what can be done. But for there to be a mediation, and this is the last step [in diplomacy], the will of both sides is needed. Both sides have to ask for it. This was the case with Argentina and Chile.”

Speaking about the declaration he signed in the UAE, Francis said that despite this being a document about “unity and friendship”, the declaration also condemns the violence of some groups that call themselves Muslim and persecute Christians.

At the signing of the document the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar condemned Islamophobia.

Pope Francis said, “For me there’s only one big danger right now: Destruction, war, hatred among ourselves.” He went on to say that “If we believers aren’t capable of shaking hands, hugging, kissing and even prayer, our faith will be defeated.”

“God is the father of everyone and the father of peace,” Francis said. “He condemns each [act of] destruction and terrorism.”