Pope Francis leaves behind trail of hope, unity following historic UAE visit
On a cool Tuesday morning in Abu Dhabi, hundreds of thousands of people from far and wide flocked towards Zayed Sports City to attend Pope Francis’s much anticipated Mass- the first to be held in the Arabian Peninsula.
A choir sang hymns as families excitedly hurried to the stadium’s entrance to take their seats.
One Mass-goer, Christine from the Philippines, limped her way through the crowds at about 7:00 am using crutches.
“It’s worth it, to be in the presence of the pope means everything to me,” Christine said. She is almost 80 years old.
Several UAE residents of the Christian faith planned their journey from early on to be able to attend the first-of-its-kind event by the head of the Catholic Church. Many started their journey the night before, where their churches organized buses to take them from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Others flew in from across the globe, slept in their cars in front of the stadium, or started their journey to the historic Mass as early as 1:00 am. The Mass was scheduled to start at 10:30 am.
“We are coming from Spain. Last night we arrived, then we came by bus to Abu Dhabi at two in the morning. We are so excited. I’m very tired because we didn’t sleep, nothing. We want to see him and kiss him!” said Mass-goer Estel.
“We woke up at 1:00 am to catch the bus and come here. This visit is a great blessing to us as Christians. I was actually born in the UAE so I am the son of this country, although I am originally Jordanian. So I am honored that the pope is visiting this country, my country,” said Mass-goer Sammy.
After arriving to the UAE on Sunday night, the head of the Catholic Church and the sovereign of the Vatican was accorded a state welcome to the UAE at a grand ceremony on Monday organized at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. His visit to the UAE is being billed as historic as he is the first pontiff to ever visit the Arabian Peninsula.
The unprecedented public celebration of Mass on Tuesday by Pope Francis gathered more than 120,000 worshippers inside the stadium, and a reported whopping 300,000 people outside the stadium who gathered in a designated area equipped with huge screens.
The Pontiff is in the Gulf country to promote inter-faith dialogue, and to mark the UAE’s Year of Tolerance, which was highly showcased throughout the visit.
Before being interviewed, Mary Arbash, who is originally from Syria, was handed a Lebanese flag by an attendee who thought she was Lebanese. Laughingly, she exclaimed that she is actually Syrian but swore that she would wear it in the name of tolerance, and to showcase the essence of the pope’s visit.
“Hey to all my friends in Lebanon! We are extremely excited that the pope is here. We weren’t expecting, it was almost unimaginable. We all have no words to describe our joy with this event,” Arbash said.
Religious leaders gather
Abu Dhabi’s opulent Emirates Palace hotel also witnessed an unusual flurry of activities on Monday.
Archbishops in long black robes and sheikhs wearing turbans crowded in front of an information desk to get their credentials to enter the Conference of Fraternity, marking the rare visit of Pope Francis to the UAE.
The religious leaders happily mingled together and attended a series of meetings and lectures all themed around tolerance, marking the ‘Year of Tolerance’ in the UAE.
Julio Murray, the bishop of the diocese of Panama and the archbishop of the church in Central America, who flew in from Panama, was immersed in conversation with an Anglican priest who serves in Amman. The pair were even snapping some selfies to share with their churches back home.
“I think this event is very important to make people aware that Christians and Muslims, especially on the level of leadership, are working together and listening to each other, respecting each other, receiving each other, and accepting each other,” Reverend George Al Kopti said.
“My worry usually is that what we speak in public, in conferences, needs to be implemented in the grassroots in our society. I need to go back to my church and teach about what I learned here. And the same thing, Muslim sheikhs need to go back and teach about what they learned. We need to unify our speech. We can’t talk in public about something, and in private sessions a different thing,” he added.
Prior to the conference, the pope was welcomed at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi where he stood between Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, and was accorded full military honors, including a 21-gun salute and fly-past leaving behind a trail of yellow smoke.
A number of UAE ministers were at the event as well, including Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
The Pontiff was accompanied by several bishops and cardinals as well, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of His Holiness, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
Each official was announced on both sides, and walked up to the podium to greet the leaders.
Passions usually run high in the pope’s presence, with many people considering it to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But Archbishop Murray was lucky enough to see him twice, in the same month.
“It was a humbling experience. He’s a humble man. And what was so impacting for us is his interest to reach out, not only to the people, but also to reach out to the different expressions of religion and faith. And the moment of the peace, during the celebration, he came from where he was and he walked straight over to where I was and he made sure that we embrace each other,” Murray said.
During his speech delivered at the Emirates’ Founders’ Memorial, where he and the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque signed a joint-agreement that focuses on efforts to combat extremism, the Pontiff reaffirmed the need for unity, stating that there will be “no future” without it.
“We will either build the future together or there will not be a future. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace,” the pope said.
Many religious leaders in attendance became the prime example of this: “Exerting themselves” for these noble purposes. But Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric said that it wasn’t always easy. Based in Bosnia, he said that after the country went through four years of siege, there were many initiatives coming from the Christian side for the dialogue and peace, but that he could hardly find an institution or individuals that he could share his concerns with.
“There was no major initiative from the Muslim countries or Muslim individuals, who had this project in mind. We had some ideas in books and in conferences but we didn’t have an organization that can carry out and mediate with others to reach the kind of dialogue we have today,” Ceric said.
“I hope that after this visit (of the pope), the major Christian European countries will invite Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb to visit Christian countries and to be given the same reception the pope is receiving here among the Muslim-majority countries. He was received very well… I hope that this Muslim reception of the pope will be a clear message to the whole world: Muslims are seeking peace and security in the world,” Ceric added.
Unity and co-existence
The UAE hosts about half of the two million expatriate Catholics living in the peninsula. The community includes large numbers of people from the Philippines and India, many of which were seen at the Mass.
"It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future," the pope said.
People wearing white pope-branded caps, and excitedly raising Vatican flags in the air as the Pontiff entered in a white open top Jeep, waving at the cheering crowds.
During the service, the pope spoke in Italian and English, the latter being the most common language used by residents of the UAE. The congregation prayed for migrant workers and their families and for the ending of wars.
The ceremony ended with a prayer, a thunderous round of applause from the crowd, as well as organ music.
“It’s amazing, I’m super lucky I managed to get a ticket yesterday so I came down. For me, I was raised in the region so to have the pope in the region is just phenomenal. Seeing what these leaders have done in bringing us together, maybe we could have peace in the world,” said Deborah Webster, who is half Finnish, half Maltese.
After the Mass, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan accompanied the pontiff on the tarmac towards the plane, before bidding him farewell, ending a historic three-day visit that united many under the banner of ‘tolerance’ in the Arab world.