Pope Francis celebrates historic Mass on Arabian Peninsula
Thousands of people turned out to welcome the pontiff at a stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Pope Francis ministered to the thriving Catholic community in the United Arab Emirates as he concluded an historic visit with the first-ever papal Mass in the Arabian Peninsula.
Cheers erupted inside and outside the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi as Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile before Mass.
Chants of “Viva il Papa” (Long live the pope) and “We love you!” accompanied him as he waved to the crowd.
A day after making a broad appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace and reject war, the pontiff is celebrating what is being billed as the largest show of public Christian worship on the peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.
The Mass was expected to draw some 135,000 faithful.
The stadium, which has a capacity of about 43,000, filled up early in the day while crowds outside were being organised in pens to watch the Mass on giant screens.
Organisers said faithful from 100 countries would attend — as well as 4,000 Muslims from this Muslim federation.
Prompted by an announcer extolling UAE’s “Year of Tolerance”, they cheered and waved Holy See flags awaiting Francis’ arrival.
The Emirates’ Catholic community is something of an anomaly for the region — large, diverse and thriving at a time when the wider Mideast has seen an exodus of Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of the Islamic State group and others.
The Catholic Church estimates as many as one million of the more than nine million people living in the UAE are Catholic, nearly all of them foreigners drawn to the oil-rich federation to work in everything from white-collar finance to construction.
Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families for work and can face precarious labour conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.
In an indication of the diversity of the Catholic flock, the prayers during Mass were being read out in a variety of languages and addressed the variety of hardships many face.
A prayer in the Indian language of Konkani called for public officials to be “illuminated” and promote the dignity of all; one in the Filipino language of Tagalog urged prayers for migrants and workers in the UAE so that “their sacrifice and work may blossom and sustain their families”; one in French called for those who foment violence to change their ways and “stop wars, overcome hatred and help us forge links of justice and peace”.
Francis’ visit, 800 years after his peace-loving namesake St Francis of Assisi visited 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, inspiring the pontiff’s efforts to promote tolerance and understanding.
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