190202 Pope Francis 2
Pope Francis Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: When Pope Francis lands in the UAE on Sunday he will be received by a government that is a beacon of tolerance, a people who give freely of their love and affection and a community that has prepared itself to worship with the Holy Father.

When he steps foot in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis will add another first to the list he is already on – the first Jesuit priest to become Pope, first Pope from outside Europe, first from the Americas and now first Pope to visit the Middle East.

In a message ahead of the apostolic journey, Pope Francis emphasised the importance of unity and cooperation between religions. “Faith brings us together even in the face of differences. It also keeps us away from hostility and indifference,” he said.

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When visiting the UAE the pope will find that the love and affection of the people will speak more than a thousand words. Individuals and families have been making plans for months to attend the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a mass on Tuesday whose main celebrant is the pope himself.

Workers prepare the Zayed Sports City venue where the pope will preside over Holy Mass on Tuesday. Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

The visit of Pope Francis on the invitation of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, is an endorsement of a nation that is home to more than 40 churches built on land generously donated by the rulers of the different emirates.

40

churches have been built on land donated by Rulers in the UAE

The figure belies a deeper reality. Thousands of people from various congregations attend worship services in these churches. Every week people from more than 100 denominations assemble in the halls of just one church in Dubai.

Year of Tolerance in the UAE

Tolerance in the UAE, which we celebrate this year, is not just a byword but an experience that is lived out every day.

“The UAE celebrates tolerance every day of the year because tolerance distinguishes the DNA of our country,” Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the Minister of Tolerance, said recently.

[The visit by Pope Francis] pays tribute to the faithful of these worshipping communities and to the tolerance of the UAE which was modelled from the birth of the federation in 1971.

- Canon Rev Andrew Thompson, Vicar of St Andrew’s Church

40%

of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America

Pope Francis is the head of the Roman Catholic Church which has more than 1.2 billion people, that is about 50 per cent of all Christians worldwide. More than 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America. On his visit to the UAE it is not just the Catholics who are looking forward to meeting him, but all denominations of Christians, different communities and religions are ready to extend their hand of welcome to the pontiff.

1.2billion

is the strength of the Catholic Church, or 50% of all Christians

Canon Rev. Andrew Thompson, Vicar of St. Andrew’s Church, Abu Dhabi, says the visit by Pope Francis “pays tribute to the faithful of these worshipping communities and to the tolerance of the UAE which was modelled from the birth of the federation in 1971.”

Pope Francis is loved by the people not just because of his humility and simple lifestyle. He has spoken openly about issues that affect the man on the street and have global impact. In January he warned against blaming migrants for countries’ problems.

He then warned politicians against exploiting nationalism and xenophobia. In recent days he has spoken about the probem in Venezuela, poverty and human rights.

During the visit, the UAE will host the largest and most diverse gathering of religious leaders, thinkers and faith representatives in the Arab World at the Global Conference on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi on February 3 and 4 organised by the Muslim Council of Elders.

700

religious leaders will attend an interfaith meeting in Abu Dhabi

An estimated 700 individuals are expected to participate at the meeting which will be the first of its kind reinforcing the UAE’s role as a capital for tolerance and interfaith discussion and peaceful dialogue.

People queue up at St Joseph Church in Abu Dhabi to register for the Holy Mass with the pope. Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

At the Vatican, for those coming from far away places to see the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, it’s another routine day, but below this calm surface lies the inescapable truth — history will be made today.