Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, has said the Pope’s coming visit to United Arab Emirates next month is being warmly anticipated by Muslims as well as Christians.
Francis would be paying a visit to the “ very heart of Islam” so to speak, Hinder said in a long interview in the January issue of Alle Welt, the quarterly magazine of the Austrian branch of the Pontifical Mission Societies, or Missio.
The Pope’s visit to a mosque and the interreligious dimension of the visit could be compared to St Francis of Assisi’s visit to the Egyptian Sultan 800 years ago, Hinder said. “St Francis reached out to the Sultan across entrenched fronts at the time, which led to a friendly visit. I think Pope Francis is going to set a sign, namely that we must build bridges even if we do not believe in the same things”, he added. Such encounters and setting such signs were most important as far as the Muslim world was concerned, “as Muslims react very positively to them”.
“This is without doubt a historic visit, as a Pope has never been to the Arab Peninsula before and until recently this was considered unthinkable,” Hinder recalled. Francis was, moreover, coming in the year when the Catholic Church was celebrating the 800th anniversary of the meeting between St Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil at Damietta in Egypt in the year 1219.
Francis is to arrive in Abu Dhabi on 3 February and take part in an international interreligious conference there the following day. On 5 February, the last day of his visit to the UAE, he would celebrate a public Mass in Abu Dhabi.
The Arab population were “very open and enthusiastic about the visit and are proud that the Pope has chosen to visit the Arab Emirates of all places”, Hinder said.
The Christians were of course even more excited, he said. “They have been waiting for this visit for a very long time and keep asking when the Pope is coming. The visit was not that simple to arrange but now their dream has been fulfilled. I am afraid some of them may be disappointed as not all those who want to will be able to participate – for logistical reasons as we simply haven’t room for them all”, he said.
The UAE’s Christian population currently stands at 13 per cent of the 9.5 million population, with this number increasing with continuous immigration. Only 10 per cent of the population are UAE nationals with the remainder made up of expatriates. Bishop Hinder has often paid tribute to the atmosphere of religious tolerance in UAE, although attempts to spread Christianity among Muslims are not permitted.