Pope Francis arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday 3 February, becoming the first Roman Pontiff ever to set foot in the Gulf Peninsula region.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and a delegation of Emirati officials welcomed Francis at the airport along with Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar university and mosque in Egypt. Dr el-Tayeb is due to accompany the Pope for much of the visit.
After the low-key welcome, which took place at just before 22.00 local time, the Pope was transferred to the Al-Mushrif Palace, reserved for state guests of the Emirati authorities, and the place he will stay during his 3-5 February stay.
The main thrust for the papal visit is to build relations with the Muslim world, turn a page on Christian-Muslim dialogue and support a local Christian community largely made up of migrants. It was dialogue that Francis referenced in brief remarks to journalists travelling with him on board the papal plane.
“This morning I received news that it was raining in Abu Dhabi, and there it is thought of as a sign of blessing. Let’s hope that everything goes like that,” he told reporters.
“I brought each of you an icon made in the monastery of Bose, a copy, so that you can take it home. It’s on the theme of dialogue between the old and the young. I care deeply about this topic, and I think it’s a challenge.” The icon is an image of a young monk carrying an older monk on his shoulders and can be seen here.
But the Pope’s visit to the UAE also takes place in the shadow of the Yemen conflict, and an hour before his flight from Rome departed for Abu Dhabi he used his Angelus address to call for an end to the humanitarian crisis in the country. The Emirates have been part of a Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the war against Houthi forces in the country.
In his remarks the Pope called for an urgent observance of the Yemen ceasefire reached in December, and for its people to receive food and medicines.
“The people are exhausted by the long conflict and many children are hungry, but humanitarian aid isn’t accessible,” Francis said at midday prayer in St Peter’s square. “The cries of these children and their parents rise up” to God.
Tomorrow, the Pope will begin the day with a private Mass before being driven to the Presidential Palace to meet with UAE’s leaders and have a private meeting with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed, the de facto leader of the country’s federation of Emirates.
In the afternoon he will have another behind closed doors meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders, before addressing a large interfaith gathering attended by around 700 religious leaders at the Founders Memorial, in Abu Dhabi, built in honour of UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed.
On Tuesday 5 February, the Pope will turn his focus to the local Catholic community by celebrating Mass for an expected 135,000 people the Zayed Sports City, which will be the largest act of Christian worship in the Arabian peninsula.
The Catholic population totals just under 1 million people, largely made up of migrants from the Philippines and south India. Catholics are served by 68 priests, nine parishes and led by Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia.
“This indeed is a red letter day not just for the one million Catholics in the UAE but an unprecedented moment for Catholics around the world,” the bishop said after the Pope’s arrival.
“This evening, I feel immense pastoral pride when I look back at the humble beginnings of the Catholic Church in the UAE. It was in Abu Dhabi that the first Catholic Church emerged in 1965 and today we are nine churches strong in the UAE, including one that is counted among the largest parishes in the world.”
He was referring to St Joseph’s Cathedral, Abu Dhabi, a community of several thousand, and which the Pope will visit with Bishop Hinder on Tuesday morning before celebrating Mass.