The United Arab Emirates hosted a first-of-its-kind visit of a sitting Pope to the Arabian Peninsula, a game-changer that will be remembered in the modern history of interreligious dialogue.
The visit was celebrated by crowds of people welcoming the Pope’s arrival at Zayed Sports City Stadium, where he delivered papal mass for an estimated 180,000 people in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.
Global media reported the pontiff’s three-day visit, which included signing a historic declaration of fraternity with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar.
The Pope met Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb on Monday February 4th and the two religious leaders greeted each other with an embrace and fraternal gestures. The meeting ignited Muslim and Christian communities with feelings of love and tolerance towards each other.
Journalists and reporters from around the world attended Abu Dhabi to cover the significant event taking place for the first time in a Gulf country, where a new chapter of interreligious dialogue unfolds.
American news outlet Fox News published several articles on the visit. One of the articles headlined, “Pope Francis's appeal to the Arab world highlights new chapter in Christian-Muslim relations”, saying that the Pope’s presence in Abu Dhabi “signifies a new chapter in the history of Christian-Muslim relations, one in which moderate Muslims who believe in religious tolerance and peace take the reins.”
The Pope visited UAE by invitation from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, kicking off the country's “Year of Tolerance” and sending a message to the rest of the Arab world that religious tolerance and freedom is the future of UAE, according to Fox News.
An opinion article by Reverend Johnnie Moore, the President of the Congress of Christian Leaders, had the headline, “The significance of Pope Francis' UAE visit is impossible to exaggerate” and pointed out that never before has a sitting pontiff been invited by a Muslim ruler to visit the Arab Peninsula.
Moore described the event as “a new era in the Arab world,” where the UAE has long been a beacon of openness, freedom and tolerance. These values have emanated from its business and tourist cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi but the Pope’s visit has taken those efforts to another plane, entirely.
Moore believes that after hosting such a visit the UAE “merits the notice of the Nobel Committee.”
The Washington Post, American most popular newspaper, published a report on religious freedom in the UAE, saying that the vast majority of the nation’s residents are non-citizens who practise various religions. Although laws exist that forbid the building of bell towers and displaying symbols such as crosses on roofs, a State Department report indicated such laws are not strictly enforced.
Public celebrations of major Christian and Hindu holidays and Chinese New Year are tolerated, as are advertising and publicising non-Muslim religious services, according to the Washington Post.
The Emirates went a step further, establishing a Ministry of Tolerance to promote tolerance of religious coexistence, the report added.
The British publication the Telegraph issued an article that focused on the Pope’s warm reception among UAE immigrants. The enthusiastic crowd carried yellow Vatican flags and banners as the Pope entered Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Catholics of different nationalities and Muslims had the opportunity to attend public mass, as the “the son of Italian immigrants, Pope Francis, has paid particular attention to migrants and refugees during his papacy,” the Telegraph reported.
Inside the stadium on Tuesday February 5th, 50,000 Catholics with tickets were allowed to attend the mass, whilst another 120,000 gathered outside, watching via video link on large screens. Parishes across the UAE said 135,000 tickets to the Pope's mass were distributed to parishioners. Some 4,000 tickets had been given to Muslims to attend the mass, according to local churches.
According to Irish journalist Melanie McDonagh in an article in The Spectator, the public mass is “something laudable,” especially after the Grand Imam in his address said, “You should not call yourself a minority…you are not a minority; you are citizens like everyone else.”