Pope Francis holds historic public mass in UAE


Pope Francis is turning his attention to the thriving Catholic community in the United Arab Emirates as he concludes his historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula.

Pope Francis has become the first pontiff to deliver mass in the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.

"It's something new for the Muslim world, that within the discussion of dialogue, they're talking about interreligious dialogue across the board", beyond basic Christian-Muslim relations, said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Sant'Egidio Community, a Rome-based Catholic organization active in interfaith relations who will be attending the conference. "But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people".

That's because in the United Arab Emirates about 80% of the population is made up of workers who come from overseas, and many of them are Catholic.

"I spoke about it, but just with just a few people", Francis said when asked if he had discussed Yemen during his meeting with Crown Prince Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and other leaders.

This has led to large-scale human rights abuses with Human Rights Watch warning that the law would be used to prosecute people exclusively for exercising their rights to free speech, association, or assembly.

On this whirlwind trip, Pope Francis came, along with his fellow religious leader His Eminence Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, to send a message of peace, tolerance, and fraternity, not only for the region, but globally.

"The leadership & nation of the UAE are proud of this historic visit of two greatly respected religious figures". Pope Francis has called on the world's religions to build bridges between peoples and cultures.

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Through this inter-faith dialogue, UAE aims to strengthen its image of being the tolerant Muslim country which discourages radical Islamic ideology unlike its neighbour Saudi Arabia. They will visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque together and the Pontiff and will also meet the Muslim Council of Elders.

About 135,000 Catholics attended the mass on Tuesday with some carrying Vatican flags and banners as the pope drove into Zayed Sports City Stadium, where an altar with a large cross was set up for the open-air service.

"Despite its assertions about tolerance, the UAE government has demonstrated no real interest in improving its human rights record", Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Francis.

The United Arab Emirates is deeply involved in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and faces widespread global criticism for airstrikes killing civilians and the creation of the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The UAE has eight Catholic churches.

"We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood", the document read.

"To live the life of the blessed and following the way of Jesus does not, however, mean always being cheerful", Francis said. Some aspects of the declaration can be interpreted as an admonition to the UAE - a country with a poor human rights record.

Despite making some reforms, the kafala (visa sponsorship) system continues to tie migrant workers to their employers - meaning those who leave their employer can face punishment for "absconding".