Pope Francis makes historic visit to UAE

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan allocated land on Saadiyat Island to build a landmark under the name of “Abrahamic Family Home” in commemoration of the pope’s visit.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Pope Francis (L) shakes hands with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R) ahead of boarding his plane, February 5. (AFP)
A new chapter. Pope Francis (L) shakes hands with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R) ahead of boarding his plane, February 5. (AFP)

ABU DHABI - A groundbreaking mass was said before an estimated 180,000 people in Abu Dhabi by Roman Catholic Pope Francis. The event was the first of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula.

Mass is the central ritual in the Catholic Church where the Eucharist is consecrated and distributed.

As part of the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance,” the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation announced a public holiday February 6 for private sector workers and gave away tickets to the mass. The government provided about 1,000 buses to transport people from various emirates.

“I am visiting [the UAE] as a brother in order to write a page of dialogue together and to travel paths of peace together,” Pope Francis said ahead of his trip.

The location of the mass — Zayed Sports Stadium near Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque — was said to have symbolic meaning in reinforcing the UAE’s commitment to tolerance and ensuring that one’s religious beliefs can flourish in a country that embraces diversity and encourages multiple faiths to co-exist side by side.

As part of his 3-day visit to the UAE — the first by a Catholic pope to the Arabian Peninsula — Francis joined al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb in appealing for the world to come together and promote the concept of human fraternity.

A document — “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” — stated that “faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved. Through faith in God… believers are called to express this human fraternity by safeguarding creation and the entire universe and supporting all persons, especially the poorest and those most in need.”

Through the document, they declared what they described as “the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard,” stressing their commitment to religious freedom.

The declaration pointed out the need to protect the rights of women, children, the elderly, the weak, the disabled and the oppressed.

It is seen as a “breath of fresh air” to people of goodwill, said Bishop Miguel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who told Emirati state news agency WAM that the future of humanity passes through the promotion of a culture of dialogue.

“The signing of the document in Abu Dhabi is an appeal, which means that there exists today a wounded humanity,” he said. “Therefore, it is an appeal to people of goodwill but also a duty for every being that we must absolutely seek mutual ways of collaboration and knowledge. It was a historical moment to witness.”

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan allocated land on Saadiyat Island to build a landmark under the name of “Abrahamic Family Home” in commemoration of the pope’s visit and his meeting with the grand imam, as well as the declaration.

The landmark is to symbolise the co-existence and human fraternity by people from various ethnicities, nationalities and beliefs in the United Arab Emirates.

There are an estimated 1 million Catholics living in the Emirates, including Jean-Baptiste Flour, 33, who was among those who attended the pope’s mass.

“As a Christian, I feel blessed to welcome our pope,” said Flour, who is from France and whose 5-year-old son, Cyprien, received Francis’s blessing when he placed his hands on his head.

“The visit sends a very strong message to the region and the world that ‘yes, it is possible.’ Pope Francis wants to lead by example and show the world that we can possibly win against war and terrorism if we fight together,” Flour said.

He said the United Arab Emirates was a leading country in that regard, expressing hope that it would continue to demonstrate that such a feat is achievable.

“There are many Catholics in the UAE who have massively contributed to building the country over the past two decades. They are here because they know they can practice their religion freely,” Flour added.

“This visit was certainly a first and small step but hopefully a giant leap for mankind.”

Rudolf Bahri, a 35-year-old Lebanese-French in Dubai, said the pope’s visit was a major step for the entire region towards tolerance and the unity that has been promoted for many years among all living in the Middle East.

“As a Christian Maronite from the region, I am proud to live in a country that protects my family,” he said. “I have more confidence to call this place home, knowing they are opening up more and more and accepting other religions and beliefs. It’s just another sign that gives me confidence for the future of my two children, growing and living in the UAE.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE vice-president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohammed presented Francis with the original document signed in 1963 by Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1928-66, granting land to build the first Catholic church in Abu Dhabi.

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