Pope Francis arrives to speak to reporters aboard a plane on the way to Abu Dhabi on Sunday. (Tony Gentile/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis First-ever Roman Catholic Leader To Visit Arabian Peninsula

While tolerance and interfaith dialogue will be front and center, the religious leader is expected to raise alarm bells over the war in Yemen and plight of Christians in region

Pope Francis is embarking on a historic two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates, making him the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula—the cradle of Islam. The UAE is home to nearly one million Roman Catholics, many of them migrant workers from South Asia.

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan invited the pope to attend an international interfaith conference as part of the Sunni Muslim Gulf state’s “year of tolerance.”

Pope Francis will also hold a Mass on Tuesday at a sports stadium that is expected to draw 120,000 people, and meet with Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, a prestigious center of learning for Sunni Muslims. The two religious leaders will lay the foundation stones for a new church and mosque, respectively, in the country.

In a video message last week, the pontiff said: “I am happy for this occasion the Lord has given me to write, on your dear land, a new page in the history of relations between religions,” adding that “faith in God unites and does not divide; it draws us closer despite differences; it distances us from hostilities and aversion.”

He also called the UAE “a land that is trying to be a model of coexistence, of human brotherhood, and a meeting place among diverse civilizations and cultures.”

However, a few touchy issues are hovering over the visit.

For one, Vatican officials expressed a need for more priests and churches in the UAE to accommodate the growing number of faithful. They are also concerned about Christians in the region, some of which are forbidden from worshiping openly in places such as Saudi Arabia.

Another elephant in the room is the conflict in Yemen, as the UAE continues to participate in the Saudi-led military coalition seeking to retake areas seized by the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. The United Nations estimates that thousands of Yemenis have been killed or maimed in coalition airstrikes, with the conflict pushing over 10 million residents to the brink of starvation.

Pope Francis previously called on the international community “to avoid a worsening of the already tragic humanitarian situation.”

Father David Neuhaus, a Jesuit priest in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and former Parochial Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the holy city, told The Media Line that it is unclear “how much traction the pope has among those who decide the fate of Yemen. But I would very strongly hope he would make reference to it.”

The continuing suffering of Yemenis, he added, “is a stain on the conscience of the world; we have let that struggle go on for so long as children die of malnutrition amid a lot of violence and death. The pope, as a moral voice, will likely appeal to the international community for a resolution.”

According to Fr. Neuhaus, the trip will shed light on the current state of Christian-Muslim relations and hopefully act as a springboard to enhanced inter-faith cooperation aimed at creating a more stable and prosperous Middle East.

The visit will also draw attention to new Christian populations in the region, even as their overall numbers have dwindled over the past decade due to the upheavals caused by the so-called Arab Spring.

“There is a lot of talk of Christians leaving, but little of the great number of them who come for work,” he said.

While noting that many of these individuals are not granted the rights bestowed by citizenship, “some of the Arab Gulf states have been very welcoming—countries like Bahrain and the UAE—which have facilitated the development of these small Christian enclaves. In other countries things are of course more difficult.”

Father P. Sagayaraj, a priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Fujairah, UAE, told The Media Line about preparations for the papal visit.

“The government will offer free transport from this parish, which is the smallest, to Abu Dhabi for the events,” which many members of his church—some 50 lay ministers, choir members, many volunteers and over 70 altar servers—will partake in.

Fr. Sagayaraj emphasized that the Catholic community in the UAE is multi-national, multi-lingual and practices an array of rituals. “Catholic immigrants from India, Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Africa, Arabic-speaking countries and Europe live and worship here, with over 500 children attending catechism classes.”

On the issue of Yemen, he said it is uncertain what will transpire as it is a very delicate issue, adding that “peace is all we seek.”

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