Pope Francis is set to preside over the largest act of Christian worship in the Arab world next week when he celebrates an open-air Mass at Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
More than 135,000 people are expected to attend the pope’s mass in Zayed Sports City next Tuesday and the Abu Dhabi government if reportedly furnishing hundreds of free buses to shuttle those wishing to attend the Mass.
Last December, the Vatican announced that the pope would visit Abu Dhabi in February 2019, the first visit by any pope in history to the Arabian Peninsula.
“In response to the invitation of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Holiness Pope Francis will visit Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) from 3 to 5 February 2019, to participate in the International Interfaith Meeting on ‘Human Fraternity,’” a Vatican statement said.
UAE authorities have allowed the pope to hold liturgical celebrations “in a public place,” a rare concession usually not permitted on the Arabian Peninsula, Christian religious activities are only allowed within churches.
The Gulf region is home to some two million Catholics, many of whom are migrant workers from India, Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
About 1.5 million of these Catholics live in Saudi Arabia, where the building of Christian churches is illegal.
The theme of the pope’s UAE visit comes from a prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Make me an instrument of your peace.”
Jorge Bergoglio was the first pope to choose the name of Francis, after the 13th-century Italian saint known for his particular devotion to the virtue of poverty as well as his association with peace.
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance for the UAE, stated that the joint visit of Pope Francis along with Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar, reflects the country’s efforts “to establish the values of tolerance around the world, which have made the UAE a model of civilised coexistence.”
The pope’s trip to Abu Dhabi will precede his journey to Morocco, scheduled for March 30-31. The papal visits to Morocco and the United Arab Emirates both will fall in the year when the Church recalls eight centuries since the meeting between Saint Francis and the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, which took place in Damietta in Egypt in 1219.
“We think this Pope is working very hard to harmonise understanding between different religions,” the UAE’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Sulaiman Almazroui, told the UK-based Tablet newspaper. “He has a genuine desire to arrive at balanced thinking of acceptance of Islam minus extremism. And Christianity minus extremism.”
“The UAE has embraced tolerance for a long time, [and] by its nature it has co-existed with many different nationalities and faiths,” Ambassador Almazroui said, adding that the pope is visiting during the country’s Year of Tolerance.
The UAE is an Islamic state and conversion to Christianity, considered apostasy under the law, is punishable by death.
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