Pope heads to UAE for historic trip

Sunday February 03 2019

Pope Francis waves as he boards a plane at Rome's Fiumicino airport on February 3, 2019, on his way to a three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates, marking the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. PHOTO | AFP


Pope Francis heads to the UAE Sunday for the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, birthplace of Islam, where he will hold an open-air Mass for tens of thousands of Catholics.

The pontiff will take part in an interreligious conference on Monday, meeting Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's prestigious seat of learning.

Hours before he flies back to Rome on Tuesday, he will lead an open-air mass -- set to be the largest gathering ever in the UAE, according to local media.

The Pope boarded a flight Sunday afternoon from Rome's Fiumicino airport and is set to arrive in Abu Dhabi at 10pm (18GMT).

Respect a truce

His visit comes with the UAE engaged in a long-running military campaign in Yemen and embroiled in a diplomatic spat with nearby Qatar.


Before heading to the Gulf, the pontiff urged warring parties in Yemen, where the UAE backs the government against Huthi rebels, to respect a truce agreement.

"I appeal to all parties concerned and to the international community to allow the urgent respect of established accords to ensure the distribution of food," he said.

"The population is exhausted by the lengthy conflict and a great many children are suffering from hunger, but cannot access food depots, he added.

"The cry of these children and their parents rises up to God."

Drizzling rain

Nearly one million Catholic migrants reside in the UAE, mostly hailing from the Philippines and India. Around 135,000 have secured precious tickets to Tuesday's mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium.

On Sunday morning, hundreds of Catholics queued in drizzling rain outside St. Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi to get their passes.

"I think the pope coming really opens doors for conversations about tolerance that the whole world needs to hear," said Collins Cochet Ryan, a 39-year-old expectant mother from the US.

For Indian Doris D'Souza, who lives in Goa, Pope Francis's trip to the UAE was not to be missed.

"Since I came to know about the pope's visit to Abu Dhabi, we jumped (at) the opportunity to be witness."

Cut all ties

The UAE capital's main streets and those leading to St. Joseph's Cathedral -- which the Pope is set to visit on Tuesday -- were lined with Vatican City flags and banners of the interreligious meeting.

UAE minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash extended an official welcome to Pope Francis on Sunday.
"It is a visit that carries great humanitarian value, and the UAE adds a new (chapter) in the history of fraternity and tolerance," he tweeted.

The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, cut all ties with Doha in June 2017 over allegations it supports extremists.

The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity.

It has eight Catholic churches. Oman, Kuwait and Yemen each have four.

Qatar and Bahrain have one each, while ultra-conservative Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim places of worship.