Pope Francis celebrates historic mass in UAE

Pope Francis celebrates historic mass in UAE

Pope Francis bows on the altar as he celebrates a mass at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Francis earlier Sunday called for the urgent observation of a limited ceasefire in Yemen reached in December and for food and medicine to get to its people, who are suffering the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The United Arab Emirates and neighbouring Saudi Arabia are key allies of the Yemeni government, which is locked in a war against Iran-linked rebels that has pushed Yemen to the brink of starvation.

The organisers had planned for 135,000 people to attend the mass. Agnello Thomas travelled with his wife and two young children to see the Pope in Abu Dhabi, and told Times of Oman, "I had planned this trip in advance and had registered with my church office".

"We are a long way from home and this is like a comforting blanket", he said, holding his three-year-old son Marcus.

"The cries of these children and their parents rise up" to God, he said from the Vatican before heading to Rome's airport for his flight.

On Monday, he met with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a prominent center of learning for Sunni Islam. He has said the trip is an opportunity to write "a new page in the history of relations between religions".

In a statement Saturday, Al-Azhar described the upcoming meeting as "historic" and praised the "deeply fraternal relationship" between its imam and the pope, which it said even includes birthday greetings. They signed a declaration promoting "human fraternity", and appealed to religious leaders for peace between nations, faiths and races.

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The UAE invited the pope to visit as part of its 2019 "Year of Tolerance" which has its own designated ministry.

Meanwhile, secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Ali al-Qaradaghi, a Doha-based body, said that while the union supports dialogue and interfaith dialogue, the pope's visit to the UAE may be interpreted as an endorsement for human rights violations and despotism. He recalled the life of St. Anthony the Great, who was accompanied by Christ amid his torments, saying: "The Lord is close".

The UAE plays a leading role in a Saudi-led coalition battling to restore Yemen's internationally recognised government.

The Catholic Church believes there are some one million Catholics in the UAE. Many of them are workers from the Catholic-majority Philippines.

The UAE is home to about 1 million Roman Catholics. This is being organised by the UAE Council of Elders where the pontiff will be projected as the "star of religous tolerance".

It says: "We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood". Crosses, for example, can only be displayed inside churches, proselytizing for faiths other than Islam is banned and Muslims are forbidden from converting. Francis exclaimed. "I liked that". It hopes the deal will pave the way for talks to end the war.

Another one million Catholics are estimated to live in other countries in the Arabian Peninsula.

Pope Francis' current visit is expected to bring a change in UAE's stance on the Yemen situation.

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