, ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Feb 5 – Pope Francis arrived at an Abu Dhabi sports stadium Tuesday to hold a public mass for an estimated 170,000 Catholics on the first ever papal visit to the Muslim Gulf.
The pope waved at an enthusiastic crowd carrying Vatican flags and banners as he drove into Zayed Sports City Stadium, where an altar with a large cross was set up for the open-air service in a country that borders the birthplace of Islam.
Francis, who has made outreach to Muslim communities a cornerstone of his papacy, is wrapping up an historic three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday.
“How beautiful it is for brothers to be joined under this sky,” said an MC in Arabic shortly after the pope’s arrival around 10:00 AM (0600 GMT).
Pope Francis’ trip has been warmly welcomed by Catholic migrants in the UAE, home to large Filipino and Indian communities.
Asian nationals make up about 65 percent of the population and are crucial to all sectors in the Gulf state, from construction to services and hotels.
The son of Italian immigrants who was raised in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio – or Pope Francis – has paid particular attention to migrants and refugees during his papacy.
More than 85 percent of the UAE population are expatriates, and about one million Catholics live in the country, or about 10 percent of the population.
The pope was to give his address a day after calling for an end to wars in the troubled Middle East, including in Yemen and Syria.
All religious leaders had a “duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word war”, he told an interfaith meeting on Monday.
“I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya,” he said.
Yemen is the scene of what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, triggered by the intervention of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies in a war between the government and Huthi rebels.
While the pope did not openly discuss politics, he called for “the full recognition” of the rights of people across the Middle East, a potential reference to communities including Shiites in Saudi Arabia, refugees and migrants, stateless peoples and other minorities.
“I look forward to societies where people of different beliefs have the same right of citizenship and where only in the case of violence in any of its forms is that right removed,” he said.
He also held talks Monday in Abu Dhabi with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb – imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s prestigious seat of learning.
The two religious leaders signed a document on “human fraternity for world peace and living together”, described by the Vatican as an “important step forward in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims”.
It called for “freedom of belief”, the “promotion of a culture of tolerance”, the “protection of places of worship” and “full citizenship” rights for minorities.