Pope Francis will be the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, when he celebrates mass this week in front of an expected 120,000 people in Abu Dhabi. The pope has been invited to visit the United Arab Emirates by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu…
Pope Franciswill be the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, when he celebrates mass this week in front of an expected 120,000 people in Abu Dhabi.
The pope has been invited to visit theUnited Arab Emiratesby Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, to take part in an international interfaith meeting as part of the Gulf state’s “year of tolerance”.
But Francis has faced criticism over the two-day visit because of the UAE’s part in the war inYemenas a member of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi armed movement. The pope, who arrives in Abu Dhabi on Sunday evening, will hold talks with the crown prince, address the interfaith meeting, celebrate mass at a sports stadium, and lay foundation stones with the Grand Imam, Ahmed Al Tayyib, for a new church and mosque.
The two faith leaders will sign a global agreement of “peace, fraternity and mutual respect on behalf of their billions of followers around the world”.
In a video message recorded before the trip, Francis said the UAE sought to be “a model of coexistence, brotherhood, and encounter between different civilisations and cultures”. He looked forward to writing “a new page in the history of relations between religions, confirming that we are brothers and sisters, even though we are different.”
The UAE has proclaimed 2019 the “year of tolerance” to promote it as a moderate, stable and inclusive nation.
The government has launched an anti-discrimination law, a ministry of tolerance and an International Institute for Tolerance to challenge extremism and promote the UAE as a role model for co-existence.
More than 200 nationalities live in the UAE. An estimated 90% of the 9.6 million population are expatriates, with South Asians the largest group.
About three quarters of the population is Muslim. Christians form 9%, Hindus 7% and Buddhists 2%, according to the World Population Review.
Catholics from the expatriate community areexpected to make up a majorityof those attending the mass on Tuesday. Bishop Paul Hinder, the vicar apostolic of Southern Arabia – the head of the Catholic church in the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – said Francis’s visit to the “very heart of Islam” would “set a sign, namely that we must build bridges even if we do not believe in the same things”.
He toldAlle Welt, a Catholic magazine: “This without doubt is a historic visit, as a pope has never been to the Arab Peninsula before and until recently was considered unthinkable.” Christians in the Gulf had been “waiting for this visit for a very long time,” he added.
“I’m afraid some of them may be disappointed as not all those who want will be able to participate for logistical reasons.” The Arab population was also “very open and enthusiastic about the visit,” he said.
But Emile Nakhleh, a former CIA official, said the papal visit could not be justified when the UAE was embroiled in the war in Yemen.
“It’s just not good optics for the pope to be visiting the UAE when they are still involved in all kinds of humanitarian atrocities in Yemen,”he toldNational Catholic Reporter.
“If he does not raise this issue, the pope would lose much credibility in the Middle East.”
Father Paul Lansu of the Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi International said he hoped the pope could “convince the leadership of the Emirates to find another policy concerning Yemen”.
Last year,the UN saidthe Saudi-led coalition had killed thousands of Yemenis in airstrikes and may have committed war crimes under international law. This monthUN officials saidmore than 10 million people in Yemen were at risk of starvation.
According toOpen Doors, which monitors Christian persecution around the world, in the UAE “Christian expatriates are free to worship in private, but the government does not allow them to evangelise or pray in public. Converts from Islam endure the most persecution as they face pressure from family members and the local community to recant their Christian faith.”