ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Pope Francis urged religious leaders Monday to work together to reject war as he opened the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, with a strong denunciation of violence committed in God's name.
In a keynote speech to an interfaith gathering in the United Arab Emirates, Francis warned that the future of humanity was at stake unless religions come together to resist the "logic of armed power ... the arming of borders, the raising of walls."
"There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future," Francis told Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis, and swamis.
"God is with those who seek peace," he added.
Francis' speech, delivered at the Emirates' Founders' Memorial, capped a historic day that began when he arrived at the presidential palace for a welcome ceremony in a tiny Kia hatchback — only to be greeted by an artillery salute and military flyover by a country now at war.
Even for a nation known for excess, the Emiratis' red-carpet welcome was remarkable, especially for a pope who prides himself on simplicity. It featured horse-mounted guards escorting the pontiff's motorcade through the palace gardens while the flyover trailed the yellow and white smoke of the Vatican flag.
Francis' speech to the gathering of faith leaders was the highlight of his 40-hour visit to Abu Dhabi. His trip culminates Tuesday with the first papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula, a gathering expected to draw some 135,000 faithful in a never-before-seen display of public Christian worship here.
Francis' visit, 800 years after his peace-loving namesake St. Francis of Assisi met with an Egyptian sultan, marked the culmination of years of Holy See efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world after they hit a low during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Since then, religious fanaticism and faith-inspired wars have only grown around the globe.
The Jesuit pope capitalized on his relationship with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni learning, to make the historic trip. They found welcome in the Emirates, which prides itself on its tolerance in a region known for severely restricting religious freedom and is home to a remarkably vibrant Catholic community that by some estimates numbers 1 million faithful in a federation of 9 million.
As Francis began his trip, though, human rights groups that are banned from the UAE urged him to use his visit to press for accountability by the Emirati leadership for atrocities in the war in Yemen and its repression of dissent at home.
"Despite its assertions about tolerance, the UAE government has demonstrated no real interest in improving its human rights record," Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Francis.