ABU DHABI, UAE, Feb 4, (Agencies): Pope Francis is opening his historic visit to the United Arab Emirates by meeting Monday with the federation’s leader and a group of Muslim elders before addressing faith leaders in a show of religious tolerance in a Muslim region known for its restrictions on religious freedom. Francis’ speech to the gathering later in the evening is the highlight of his brief, 40-hour visit to Abu Dhabi.
His trip culminates on Tuesday with the first-ever papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula — a gathering expected to draw some 135,000 people in a never before- seen display of public Christian worship here. Francis arrived in the Emirati capital late on Sunday and was greeted by Abu Dhabi’s powerful Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who hosts him at his palace for Monday’s official welcome ceremony.
Francis arrival followed his surprising appeal on Sunday at the Vatican for the urgent observation of a limited cease-fire in Yemen and for food and medicine to get to its people, who are suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Emirates has been Saudi Arabia’s main ally in its war in Yemen and Francis’ pre-trip appeal was a way for him to avoid embarrassing his hosts with a public denunciation of the humanitarian costs of the war while in the region.
“The cries of these children and their parents rise up” to God, he said from the Vatican before heading to Rome’s airport for his flight. In a sign that regional politics was playing a not-insignificant role in Francis’ visit, the papal plane flew north of Qatar and around the peninsular, energy- rich nation on his flight Sunday. Four Arab nations — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have been boycotting Qatar since June 2017 as part of a regional political dispute.
Tensions are still high between the nations, especially after Qatar’s win at the Emirates hosted Asian Cup soccer tournament this past week. By avoiding Qatari airspace, Francis omitted sending a telegram of greetings to the country’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as he would do when flying through the airspace of countries. He sent one when passing by the island nation of Bahrain.
The Vatican and Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and university signed on Monday a document on fighting extremism, Al Arabiya TV reported. The document was signed in Abu Dhabi, during the historic visit of Pope Francis to the Arabian Peninsula.
Arriving at the sprawling presidential palace with its many domes of gold and glass, Francis was greeted with a flyover by UAE air force jets spewing out plumes of smoke in yellow and white – the colours of the Vatican flag. He rode to the main courtyard in a small car escorted by a dozen flagbearing Emirati guards on horseback. He shunned bulletproof cars or limousines since the start of his papacy. Once inside the palace, a 370 acre (150 hectares) maze of buildings, gardens and fountains, Francis held private talks with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and other UAE leaders.
Writing in the palace guest book, he asked that God grant the UAE “divine blessings of peace and fraternal solidarity”. The visit takes place in the shadow of the war in Yemen, the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation, where the UAE military has a leading role in a Saudi led coalition fighting on the side of the internationally recognised Yemeni government that was ousted by the Iran-allied Houthi group. Francis was due to deliver his only public address of the day later at an inter- religious meeting following a visit to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the Islamic world.
The visit received some positive media attention in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and where churches are banned. The main English daily, Arab News, ran a picture of the pope and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince calling it “the moment that made history on the Arabian Peninsula.” It ran an article citing Muslim and Catholic officials saying Saudi Arabia could feature in a future papal visit. Priests and diplomats describe the UAE as one of the least restrictive environments in the Gulf for Christian worship, which is allowed in church compounds with special licenses. But like other Gulf states it outlaws unsanctioned religious gatherings and non-Muslims must not proselytize.
On Tuesday, before returning to Rome, the pope will celebrate an outdoor mass for some 135,000 Catholics in an Abu Dhabi sports stadium, an event with no precedent in the peninsula. He has said the trip would write “a new page in the history of relations between religions”.
The UAE is home to around 1 million expatriate Catholics, many from the Philippines. Another 1 million Catholics are believed to live in other countries in the Arabian Peninsula. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, called on Muslims in the Middle East to “embrace” local Christian communities. He addressed Muslims saying: “Continue to embrace your brothers the Christian citizens everywhere, for they are our partners in our nation,” he said during a televised speech from a ceremony in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi, also attended by Pope Francis.