International

Pope Francis set for historic Arabian Peninsula visit

Pope Francis set for historic Arabian Peninsula visit
Pope Francis
Dubai, Feb 1 (Agencies) | Publish Date: 2/1/2019 12:20:38 PM IST

Pope Francis is due to make an historic trip to the United Arab Emirates, the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Pope, who has made strengthening ties between the two largest faiths, Christianity and Islam, a cornerstone of his papacy, will travel to Abu Dhabi on Sunday. During the three-day visit, he will take part in an international interfaith conference and meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning.

On the final day, the Pope will celebrate mass in Abu Dhabi, which is expected to be attended by more than 130,000 people.

Bishop Paul Hinder of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which encompasses the UAE, Oman and Yemen, said the visit “couldn’t have come at a better time”.

“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.” Bishop Hinder said that while there were no plans “at the moment” for a papal visit to other Gulf countries, the Pope’s trip to the UAE was being widely seen as a gateway for more inter-religious dialogue in the region. He said the Vatican continued to have good relations with rulers of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council.

The UAE - which has made no secret of its push on soft power - prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity, and most Gulf Arab states have long allowed Christians to worship in churches. The UAE, however, has been criticised by rights groups for its involvement in a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have been killed since 2015, according to the United Nations.

It was also criticised for upholding a ten-year prison term against human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, in December - two weeks after the UAE declared 2019 the Year of Tolerance.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who invited the Pope to the UAE, has described him as “the man of peace and love”.

In a tweet, he said: “We are hopeful that generations to come will prosper in peace and security.”

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.”

Catholics attending the open-air mass queued up for hours at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai on Wednesday this week 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.

More than 50,000 members of the congregation had requested access to the historic mass at Zayed Sports City stadium.

More than 2,000 buses will be transporting worshippers from across the country to Abu Dhabi for the mass next Tuesday.

The UAE has the largest number of Catholic churches in the region with eight.

Oman, Kuwait and Yemen each have four, while Qatar and Bahrain have one each.

Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim houses of prayer.

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

Bishop Hinder said almost one million Catholics live in the emirates, the majority from the Philippines and India.

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