ROME - Pope Francis has arrived in the United Arab Emirates Sunday ahead of an interfaith conference he will attend as part of a two-day visit to UAE, the first-ever trip by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.
The head of the Catholic Church has made dialogue with Islam one of the cornerstones of his papacy. Since he became pope in 2013, he has visited several countries with large Muslim populations.
Pope Francis was invited to the UAE by the emirates' Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
On Monday, the pope’s day will be entirely dedicated to inter-religious dialogue. He will first visit a mosque, one of the biggest in the world, where he will meet privately with the Council of Elders, an organization based in Abu Dhabi, which aims to promote peace and tolerance among Islamic communities. The Council of Elders is organizing a Human Fraternity Meeting and conference where the pope will speak, along with Sheik Ashamed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the 1,000 year old seat of Sunni Islam. Muslims, Christians, and hundreds of Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other faith leaders are expected to be in attendance.
Pope Francis released a video message last week ahead of his visit.
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.”
The pope will celebrate an open-air mass in Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City on Tuesday. The stadium can hold 43,000 people but 135,000 tickets have been handed over so thousands are expected to also follow the mass from outside the stadium.
About 10 percent of the population in the United Arab Emirates — nearly one million — are Catholics, most of them foreign workers from Asia.
The pope said he is pleased with this opportunity which he said was offered by the Lord to write a new page in the history of relations among religions and confirm that all are brothers despite our differences.
Pope Francis also said that, “Faith in God unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion.”
Since his election, 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.