Pope Francis holds open-air Mass in Abu Dhabi - thousands attend

Two men and a girl pose for a selfie with a cutout image of Pope Francis ahead of his visit to the United Arab Emirates
Credit GIUSEPPE CACACE AFP

Two men and a girl pose for a selfie with a cutout image of Pope Francis ahead of his visit to the United Arab Emirates Credit GIUSEPPE CACACE AFP

During a video address Thursday, Pope Francis described the UAE as "a land that seeks to be a model of coexistence, human brotherhood and encounter between different civilizations and cultures".

For his part, the pope thanked his Emirati hosts for protecting freedom of religion and conscience.

The UAE is home to about half of the 2 million expatriate Catholics living on the Arabian peninsula, home to the birthplace of Islam in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Devin Kenney, a researcher on the UAE for Amnesty International, confirms the lack of critical voices in the kingdom.

In off-the-cuff remarks not included in his prepared speech, the Pope said: "Let us pray loudly because there are children that are hungry, are thirsty, don't have medicine and their lives are in danger". Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families back home in order to come here and work. Whereas tens of thousands of Middle Eastern Christians have fled their historic homelands due to war and persecution, the number of churches in the UAE has increased sharply from 24 in 2005 to about 40 in 2015.

Catholics believe the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth, so that participating in a papal Mass is particularly special.

His trip culminates on February 5 with the first-ever papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula - a gathering expected to draw some 135,000 people in a never-before-seen display of public Christian worship here.

The state's tolerance-themed project, however, has its limits.

Abu Dhabi's crown prince is an ally of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has reached out to Christian representatives overseas as part of attempts to open up the conservative kingdom.

A permit is required to hold a Quran memorisation circle or lecture, collect donations or distribute books or audio in mosques. "These tragic realities are the outcome of a deviation from religious teachings".

Moreover, all imams receive their salaries from the government and - with the exception of the most senior imams - must follow official weekly guidance on the content of Friday sermons.

According to the group, UAE authorities have targeted critics, political dissidents and human rights activists with arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.

Last month, rights groups slammed Abu Dhabi for upholding a 10-year prison sentence for activist Ahmed Mansoor.

The Crown Prince Zayed's long-time antipathy towards Islamic activism and the Muslim Brotherhood formally became law with the UAE's new "terrorism law" in 2014. "No violence can be justified in the name of religion".

This declaration also highlighted a "a distancing from religious values" as one of the most important causes of the crises of the modern world, giving way to "materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles".

Fr Bijo Kudilil, the priest of Ruwi church, had previously said, "I am really happy about this because he is coming to the Middle East and this is a really historic moment, so we are all happy about it". While the UAE is far from flawless in this regard, it is miles ahead of its neighbors.

Organizers said faithful from 100 countries would attend, as well as 4,000 Muslims from this Muslim federation - evidence of the enormous diversity among the 9 million people who live in the UAE.

In his address, the pontiff pushed the need for justice, equality of citizens' rights and an end to all wars, including in Yemen.

The Pope's visit also comes at a time when the Arab World is increasingly engaging in a rapprochement with the global Jewish community and in particular, Israel.

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