Pope Francis will be breaking new ground when he becomes the first pontiff to set foot in the Arab Peninsula and visits the second most populous city in the United Arab Emirates Feb. 3-5.
The papal visit, primarily to attend an “International Interfaith Meeting” that will be taking place on the theme “Human Fraternity,” comes after invitations from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, and from the Catholic Church in the UAE, the Vatican said in a Dec. 6 statement.
Holy See Press Office Director Greg Burke said the Church’s theme for the visit — to “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” — is the “Pope’s intention in going to the Arab country,” adding that how all people of goodwill can work for peace “will be a major topic on this trip.”
Burke said the papal trip would be similar to his visit to Egypt in April 2017 in showing “the fundamental importance the Holy Father gives to inter-religious dialogue.” He added that Pope Francis’ visit to the Arab world would be “a perfect example of the culture of encounter.”
The visit to the oil-rich emirate will be a brief one: arriving in the evening of Sunday, February 3, and leaving midday on Tuesday Feb. 5, with a public Mass in Abu Dhabi scheduled for the final day.
But it comes after years of expectation of a papal visit in view of the Gulf’s large and burgeoning immigrant population, many of whom are Catholics from India, East Asia, North America and Europe. Many are employed as domestic helpers or construction workers, and work in poor conditions.
According to UAE government figures, around one million Christians of various denominations live in the emirates out of the total population of 9.5 million, and 70%-75% of them are believed to be Catholics.
Bishop Paul Hinder of the Arabian Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which comprises the UAE, Oman and Yemen, expressed his “gratitude” to the UAE government for inviting the Pope. In a Dec. 6 statement, he said a “special team” would be working “closely” with the UAE authorities to ensure the visit runs as smoothly as possible.
He also said he appreciated the UAE government’s “generosity” in allowing the Mass to be celebrated, which is expected to draw an enormous number of faithful. “These are warm and kind gestures that we appreciate and acknowledge,” he said. Noting its historic nature, Bishop Hinder predicted the “short visit will be momentous for all, and especially for the Bishop of Rome.”
The Swiss bishop also said he hoped it would mark “an important step in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians and contribute to mutual understanding and peace-making in the Middle East.”
Read more at National Catholic Register.