In a first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, Pope Francis will take part in an inter-religious conference and hold an open-air mass for tens of thousands of Catholics.
Pope Francis arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, the first visit by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, where he will meet with Muslim and political leaders and celebrate an outdoor mass in the capital Abu Dhabi.
The pope, who landed at Abu Dhabi’s airport, will stay in the UAE until Tuesday.
The pontiff will take part in an inter-religious conference on Monday, meeting Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s prestigious seat of learning.
Hours before he flies back to Rome on Tuesday, he will lead an open-air mass – set to be the largest gathering ever in the UAE, according to local media.
The pope boarded a flight Sunday afternoon from Rome’s Fiu micino airport and is set to arrive in Abu Dhabi at 10 PM (1800 GMT).
Pope urges “respect” for Yemen accords
His visit comes with the UAE engaged in a long-running military campaign in Yemen and embroiled in a diplomatic spat with nearby Qatar.
Before heading to the Gulf, the pontiff urged warring parties in Yemen, where the UAE backs the government against Huthi rebels, to respect a truce agreement.
“I appeal to all parties concerned and to the international community to allow the urgent respect of established accords to ensure the distribution of food,” he said.
“The population is exhausted by the lengthy conflict and a great many children are suffering from hunger, but cannot access food depots, he added.
“The cry of these children and their parents rises up to God.”
Nearly one million Catholic migrants reside in the UAE, mostly hailing from the Philippines and India. Around 135,000 have secured precious tickets to Tuesday’s mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
On Sunday morning, hundreds of Catholics queued in drizzling rain outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi to get their passes.
“I think the pope coming really opens doors for conversations about tolerance that the whole world needs to hear,” said Collins Cochet Ryan, a 39-year-old expectant mother from the US.
For Indian Doris D’Souza, who lives in Goa, Pope Francis’s trip to the UAE was not to be missed.
“Since I came to know about the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi, we jumped (at) the opportunity to be witness.”
The UAE capital’s main streets and those leading to St. Joseph’s Cathedral – which the pope is set to visit on Tuesday – were lined with Vatican City flags and banners of the inter-religious meeting.
‘A new chapter’
UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash extended an official welcome to Pope Francis on Sunday.
“It is a visit that carries great humanitarian value, and the UAE adds a new (chapter) in the history of fraternity and tolerance,” he tweeted.
The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity.
It has eight Catholic churches. Oman, Kuwait and Yemen each have four.
The UAE has however been criticised by rights groups for its involvement in a bloody Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed in four years of war.
Millions of Yemenis face imminent starvation, according to the UN.
Rights groups have also slammed the Gulf state for upholding a 10-year prison term against activist Ahmed Mansoor on December 31 – two weeks after the UAE declared 2019 the “Year of Tolerance”.
“Despite its assertions about tolerance, the UAE government has demonstrated no real interest in improving its human rights record,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said Sunday.
“But the UAE has shown how sensitive it is to its image on the global stage, and Pope Francis should use his visit to press UAE leaders to meet their human rights obligations at home and abroad.”