Pope Francis in historic UAE visit

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who invited the pope to the UAE, has described the pontiff as "the man of peace and love."
Saturday 02/02/2019
Men look at a cutout image of Pope Francis as another person takes a picture of the cutout itself, days ahead of the papal visit to the United Arab Emirates, at St Mary's Catholic Church in Dubai on January 30, 2019. (AFP)
Men look at a cutout image of Pope Francis as another person takes a picture of the cutout itself, days ahead of the papal visit to the United Arab Emirates, at St Mary's Catholic Church in Dubai on January 30, 2019. (AFP)

DUBAI - Pope Francis is set for a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, as he seeks to boost the Vatican's outreach to Islam.

The pontiff's trip to the UAE, which starts February 3, "couldn't have come at a better time," said Bishop Paul Hinder of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia -- which encompasses the UAE, Oman and Yemen.

"With advanced communication tools at everyone's disposal, we are better informed, and this can be put into a broader perspective when we couple it with dialogue," he said.

Pope Francis, who has made strengthening ties between the two largest religions a cornerstone of his papacy, will pay a  three-day visit to the UAE. 

He will take part in an interfaith conference and meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prestigious seat of learning.

While Hinder said there were no plans "at the moment" for a papal visit to other Gulf countries, the pope's trip to the UAE is widely seen as a stepping stone to broader interreligious dialogue in the region.

The UAE -- which has made no secret of its focus on soft power -- prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity. It has declared 2019 the Year of Tolerance.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who invited the pope to the UAE, has described the pontiff as "the man of peace and love."

"We are hopeful that generations to come will prosper in peace and security," he said in a tweet anticipating the meeting between the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed.

In a video message to the Emirati people, Pope Francis said: "I am happy ... to write on your dear land a new page in the relations between religions, confirming that we are brothers although different."

Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Council, has said that the statement issued by the pope was full of love, humanity and tolerance values.

Sheikh Hazza referred to the pope's description the UAE as a model of interfaith, brotherhood and humanity.

On the last day of his trip, Pope Francis will lead a mass in Abu Dhabi to be attended by more than 130,000 people -- the largest gathering ever in the UAE, according to local media.

Catholics attending the open-air mass queued for hours at St Mary's Catholic Church in Dubai on January 30 to collect their tickets.

Parishes across the country were allocated a certain number of passes with St Mary's Catholic Church receiving 41,000 tickets, according to priest Lennie Connully.

He said more than 50,000 members of the congregation had asked to attend the historic mass at Zayed Sports City stadium, adding, "We are still trying to give to all... because there may be extras in other parishes."

More than 2,000 buses will be transporting worshippers from across the country to Abu Dhabi, with most departing in the early hours of February 5-- way ahead of mass that is scheduled for 10:30 am (06:30 GMT).

For Filipina Mylene Lao Estipona, 43, a cancer survivor, the time-consuming journey to see Pope Francis is a small price to pay for a life-long dream.

She said her faith gave her a "second chance" at life and the strength to beat cancer.

"I thank God that I have a ticket. I really prayed, and it's an answered prayer," said the dental hygienist, who has been living in the UAE for 13 years.

Mary Corrado, an American expatriate, described the pope's visit as a "culmination of a journey but a highlight along the path that the UAE has taken from its inception."

Corrado, who is also the chairman of the advisory council of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, added "When I came to the UAE in 1977, I received a warm and friendly welcome. The Emirati friends I have known and know have set the tone in this society for acceptance and a spirit of togetherness, no matter who you are or where you come from."

The UAE has the largest number of Catholic churches in the region with eight such places of worship. Oman, Kuwait and Yemen each have four, while Qatar and Bahrain have one each. 

Nearly 80% of the population of the UAE is Muslim, while Christians constitute around 9%, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The UAE authorities do not tolerate any group that uses religion for political ends.

"We do not want the pulpits to become a platform for disseminating hate and extremism and instigating violence, as we have seen in many countries, including in Europe," a UAE official said on condition of anonymity.

According to Hinder, nearly one million Catholics live in the Emirates, the majority from the Philippines and India.

Pope Francis, who made history when he was named the first Latin American pontiff in 2013, is known as the "people's pope," listening to and warmly embracing people from different walks of life.

"Latin culture is an exuberant culture, an outgoing culture, quite different from European culture," Connully said.

(Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)