Pope Francis blesses a boy during a Mass at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP)
Pope Francis on Tuesday concluded a historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula after ministering to the United Arab Emirates’ thriving Catholic community with the first-ever papal Mass in the country.
The celebration marked what some considered to be the largest showing of public Christian worship on the peninsula that birthed Islam.
The hymns of “Halleluja” booming out from speakers, marked an unprecedented achievement for the Emirates’ much-touted assertions for other faiths and comes a day after Francis made a broad appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace and reject war.
Cheers erupted inside and outside the Zayed Sports City Stadium as Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile, as chants of “Viva il Papa” and “We love you!” echoed from the crowd, estimated to be around 135,000.
Organizers said faithful from 100 countries would attend, as well as 4,000 Muslims from this Muslim federation — evidence of the enormous diversity among the 9 million people who live in the UAE.
“We have to say it is really a big event for us which we never expected,” said Sumitha Pinto, and Indian native who has lived in the UAE for nearly 20 years. She attended the Mass with her husband and four sons, the youngest of whom held up a sign with the pope’s photo that read: “Welcome Pope Francis. Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”
God is with those who seek peace.
The Emirates’ Catholic community is something 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 ISIS and others.
The Catholic Church estimates as many as 1 million of the over 9 million living in the UAE are Catholic, nearly all of them foreigners drawn to the oil-rich federation to find work. They can face precarious labor conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.
“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,” Francis said in a homily that was delivered in Italian and translated into Arabic with English subtitles on giant screens. “But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”
Worshippers attend Pope Francis Mass at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP)
Francis also told his flock — many of them poor, manual laborers — that they need not build great “superhuman” works to be faithful. It was a message extolling meekness in a country that is home to the world’s biggest skyscraper and is known for its opulence and excess.
“Jesus did not ask us to build great works or draw attention to ourselves with extraordinary gestures. He asked us to produce just one work of art, possible for everyone: our own life,” Francis said to an elated crowd.
“He is almost divine. He has a special charisma, which appeals to each one,” said Raphael Muntenkurian, 64, an Indian-native and former seminarian who has lived in the UAE for more than 30 years.
“Everybody is actually mesmerized by his appeal for peace and tolerance,” he said. “His simplicity and humility is always praiseworthy.”
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 that many face.
A prayer in the Indian language of Konkani called for public officials to be “illuminated” and promote the dignity of all, while the 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.” The 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.”
On Monday, the pope met with Emirati leaders and signed a document promoting “human fraternity” with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning. He also urged religious leaders to work together to reject the “miserable crudeness” of war and 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 gathered in the Emirati capital at a time when the UAE-backed Saudi war in Yemen has driven the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.
“God is with those who seek peace,” Francis added.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.