Pope Francis will become the first pope to visit the United Arab Emirates when he travels to Abu Dhabi for an interfaith gathering early next year.
The Vatican announced that the 81-year-old Argentine Pontiff is to attend a 3-5 February international meeting on “human fraternity” at the invitation of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The trip underlines Francis’ credibility with Arab and Muslim leaders, something he has earned throughout a bridge-building pontificate that has made dialogue with Islam a priority.
His Abu Dhabi trip is his second to an Arab country and follows a 2017 visit to Egypt where the Pope called for an end to religiously inspired violence at Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning. It is also the second Muslim-majority country the Vatican has confirmed he will be visiting in 2019, with a trip to Morocco scheduled for 30-31 March.
The Pope's refusal to speak of "Islamic violence" has earned him respect from various quarters in the Muslim world including political leaders in Pakistan and a Grand Ayatollah in Iran. Francis has also gone out of his way to meet with, and listen to, Islamic leaders from across the Sunni-Shia divide.
He has met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar on four occasions, oversaw a restoration of diplomatic relations with Egypt after they were put under strain in 2011 and has met with both the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani and influential Grand Ayatollah al-Modarresi.
In the UAE, the Vatican has an ally in the Arab world, and in 2016 the first papal ambassador to the county was officially accredited.
It is a majority Sunni-Muslim country but one which tolerates other faiths, provides for freedom of religion in its constitution, and has allowed Christians to build churches.
But its leaders have recently faced criticism for jailing Matthew Hedges, a British academic, with Hedges, subsequently pardoned, saying he was “psychologically tortured” during his detention. The Pope’s visit comes as the UAE has begun to move away from its traditional alliances with western powers, and look more to Russia.
For Francis, the Abu Dhabi visit will be about deepening relationships with Arab leaders although its likely the plight of Christians and minorities across Arab and Muslim-majority countries will be raised in private. Vatican officials have been quietly lobbying for Christians in Arab countries to be granted citizenship rather than just “protection” by leaders.
A significant development came in 2016 when more than 250 heads of state from the Muslim world, religious leaders and scholars signed a declaration in Marrakech on the rights of religious minorities. This event happened following the persecution of Christians Yazidis and others by Islamic State.
After the UAE trip was announced a Holy See spokesman said the Pope’s trip will take as its basis the popular “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” text, an anonymous prayer often attributed to St Francis of Assissi. Like the visit to Egypt, it will show "the fundamental importance the Holy Father gives to inter-religious dialogue", the spokesman said, adding: “Pope Francis visiting the Arab world is a perfect example of the culture of encounter.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for efforts to “build bridges, rather than walls”.