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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Pope Francis to make landmark visit to UAE

Pope Francis will visit the UAE for the first time in what will be a landmark moment for interfaith relations and Catholics in the Gulf.

The Vatican announced the visit to the country on February 3-5 on Thursday.

The news follows an official invitation from the UAE that was delivered in person by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, in June and a visit to the Vatican in 2016 by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

It is estimated there are about one million Christians in the UAE or roughly 10 per cent of the country's population.

Many are Catholics from the Philippines, India and African nations though there are many Christian churches and religious denominations in the emirates.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said the visit would "strengthen our ties and understanding of each other".

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said Pope Francis is a "symbol of peace, tolerance and the promotion of brotherhood".

"We look forward to a historic visit, through which we will seek dialogue on the peaceful coexistence among peoples," he said.

Pope Francis has made boosting ties between Christianity and Islam a cornerstone of his papacy.

The 81-year old has already visited several Muslim countries, including Turkey in 2014, Azerbaijan in 2016 and Egypt in 2017.

The Vatican said the visit would "spread in a special way the peace of God within the hearts of all people of good will," it said.

"This visit, like the one to Egypt, shows the fundamental importance the Holy Father gives to inter-religious dialogue," spokesman Greg Burke said.

"Pope Francis visiting the Arab world is a perfect example of the culture of encounter," he added.

Pope Francis' itinerary is yet to be released but the pontiff is known to like to walk among the crowds and meet the faithful in person.

“It has been the hope of all Catholics in the UAE that the Holy Father would visit us here,” Father Ani Xavier, parish priest of St Paul’s Church in Mussaffah, told The National.

“We have been praying for it.”

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Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed meets Pope Francis at the Vatican

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed meets Pope Francis at the Vatican - in pictures

Pope Francis invited to visit the UAE

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Relations between the UAE and the Vatican began officially in 2007, but contact and goodwill go back many more years.

It is known than an official visit to Europe by the then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut, took place in the summer of 1953, with several days spent in Rome.

The royal party, which included Sheikh Zayed, visited the Vatican City, and a photograph of the group and a uniformed soldier from the Pontifical Swiss Guard, who protect the Pope, was taken.

It is not known if the Sheikh Shakhbut and Sheikh Zayed, then Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region, also met with Vatican officials or even the then Pope, Pius XII.

What is recorded is the concern, even in those days, among the rulers that Christians should not only be permitted to observe their faith but have somewhere to do so.

It was Sheikh Shakhbut who offered land for the building of a Roman Catholic church in Abu Dhabi in 1962, a pledge honoured and expanded by his brother, Sheikh Zayed, on his accession in 1966.

Eight years later, the Vatican moved the See, or home, of the church in Southern Arabia from Aden to Abu Dhabi, with the bishop taking up residence in the city.

The move also saw an official visit by a representative of the Pope, who presented Sheikh Zayed with a medal.

But official links between the UAE and the Vatican, which holds observer status at the United Nations, would have to wait until 2007.

The growing population of resident workers, especially from Catholic countries like the Philippines and parts of southern India, did, indeed, see several more churches built and the existing ones expanded.

Pope Benedict XVI greets Abdul Aziz al-Ghurair, the speaker of the Federal National Council, at the Vatican.
Pope Benedict XVI greets Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, then the speaker of the FNC, at the Vatican

Formal contacts between the Vatican and the UAE also continued to grow. Within a year of diplomatic relations, the country sent its highest delegation so far to Rome, headed by Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, then Speaker of the Federal National Council.

Mr Al Ghurair held discussions with Pope Benedict, telling The National afterwards: "People from more than 200 nationalities live in the UAE and I said that we don't discriminate between religions."

In response, Pope Benedict was reported as saying: "I am aware of the construction of churches in the Emirates. I respect the efforts of your leadership to promote tolerance."

Within two years, the UAE had appointed its first ambassador to the Holy See, a non-residential post held by Her Excellency Dr Hissa Al Otaiba, who is also ambassador to Spain.

At their historic first meeting in Rome, the Pope told Dr Al Otaiba: “I respect the efforts of your leadership to promote tolerance.”

Pope Benedict’s address on Vatican Radio that week praised the leadership of the UAE, noting that: “Freedom of worship contributes significantly to the common good and brings social harmony to all those societies where it is practised.”

Contacts at the highest level have continued, with official visits to the Vatican by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces in September 2016, and by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International co-operation, earlier this year.

February's visit, while much anticipated, should come as no surprise, with a mutual desire for tolerance and understanding at the foundation of the long relationship between the UAE and world’s estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.