It will be the first time a pope has visited the peninsula.
When Pope Francis touches down in Abu Dhabi on February 3, he will be making history. It will be the first time a pope has visited the Arabian peninsula. In a video message released ahead of his trip to the United Arab Emirates, he said he is thankful for the chance to write “a new page in the history” of Catholic-Muslim relations.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven states on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf. About 80 percent of the 9.7 million people who live in the UAE are foreigners and non-citizens. Islam is the official state religion, but the huge population of foreigners means there are significant communities of non-Muslims living in the Emirates. According to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia there are about 1 million Catholics living in the region.
Christians in the UAE enjoy the freedom to worship and Emirati rulers have even donated land to build churches. However, converting from Islam to any other religion is forbidden by law. Church bells are not allowed and crosses on buildings can not be visible from the street.
Still, Pope Francis said in his video message he was looking forward to visiting “a land that tries to be a model of coexistence” between people of different religions and cultures. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, by contrast, churches are not permitted and all worship must be done privately.
The pope’s visit will also mark the first time a public Mass is celebrated in the Emirates. He will celebrate Mass with local Catholics at a sports stadium in Abu Dhabi. More than 100,000 Catholics are expected to attend.
During his brief visit Pope Francis will also take part in the International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity, organized by the Muslim Council of Elders. The working sessions focus on how different religions can work together to help build peace, especially in places where religion had been a source of conflict. Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed invited Pope Francis to visit the UAE in order to take part in the meeting.
Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia, told Catholics in a letter released in December that he prays the visit will be “be an important step in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians and contribute to mutual understanding and peace-making in the region of the Middle East.”