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Francis due in UAE on first papal visit to Arabian Peninsula

Pope Francis attends a farewell ceremony at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama January 27, 2019
Pope Francis attends a farewell ceremony at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama January 27, 2019 REUTERS/Henry Romero

Pope Francis is due in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, invited by Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to take part in an interfaith conference organised by the Council of Elders, which aims to promote peace and tolerance among Islamic communities.

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The trip will be the first by the head of the Catholic Church to the Arabian Peninsula.

The pontiff is to spend less than 48 hours in the UAE and is due to make only two public addresses during his visit. But it will be a significant trip for a pope who has made dialogue with Islam one of the cornerstones of his papacy.

This week Pope Francis released a video message in which he paid tribute to the UAE as “a land that is trying to be a model of coexistence, of human brotherhood, and a meeting place among diverse civilizations and cultures, where many find a safe place to work and live freely in the respect of diversities”.

About 10 percent of the population in the UAE – nearly one people million – are Catholic, most of them foreign workers from Asia.

On Monday, the pope’s day will be entirely dedicated to inter-religious dialogue. He will first visit the mosque, one of the biggest in the world, where he will meet privately with the Council of Elders, which organised the Human Fraternity Meeting and Conference.

The pope said, “I am pleased with this meeting offered by the Lord to write, on your dear land, a new page in the history of relations among religions and confirm that we are brothers despite our differences.

“Faith in God unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion,” Francis added.

On Tuesday, the pope will celebrate an open-air mass in Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City. The stadium can hold 43,000 people but 135,000 tickets have been handed out so thousands are expected to also follow the mass from outside the stadium.

Since his election in 2013, the Pope has already visited half a dozen predominantly Muslim nations. He has condemned using violence in the name of God and urged inter-religious dialogue. The war in Yemen, in which the UAE is involved as part of a Saudi-led coalition, could cast a shadow on the trip.

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