Pope Francis is hoping to persuade a country enmeshed in a regional war that he has condemned to give Catholics more freedom when he becomes the first pontiff to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula, Reuters reports.
Francis will spend less than 48 hours in the United Arab Emirates, which is fighting alongside Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, and is due to make only two public addresses during the trip that starts on Sunday night.
Although short, the visit to the peninsula, home to two million expatriate Catholics as well as the holiest sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia, is a landmark one. The freedom to practice Christianity — or any religion other than Islam — varies across Gulf countries.
The papal Mass in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City on Tuesday, is expected to draw some 120,000 people.
“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,” Francis said in a video message on Thursday. It started in Arabic with the words Al Salamu Alaikum (Peace be with you).
“Faith in God unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion.”
Priests, worshippers and diplomats in the UAE say it is among the most tolerant countries in the Gulf region toward other religions.
In the UAE and Kuwait, Christians may worship in churches or church compounds, and in other places with special licences. In Saudi Arabia, churches are banned.
Francis praised the UAE as “a land that is trying to be a model of coexistence, of human brotherhood, and a meeting place among diverse civilisations and cultures.”