Pope Francis arrived Sunday in the United Arab Emirates for the first-ever visit by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, The Times of Israel reported. This comes at a critical time, as the country is stepping up its interfaith efforts with the non-Muslim world.
The Pope landed in Abu Dhabi, where he was greeted by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and embarked upon a two-day visit to the UAE capital.
He gave his first public speech on Monday afternoon at a meeting with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders, in which Francis called on faith leaders to reject war and extremism. The Pope also participated in a conference on interreligious dialogue sponsored the Emirates-based Muslim Council of Elders, an initiative that promotes a moderate version of Islam.
While religious freedom is not absolute in the emirate, the UAE interferes little in the private activities of religious minorities, and non-Muslims in the country enjoy a climate of tolerance. Whereas tens of thousands of Middle Eastern Christians have fled their historic homelands due to war and persecution, the number of churches in the UAE has increased sharply from 24 in 2005 to about 40 in 2015.
The highlight of the Pope’s visit will be a giant mass led by Francis on Tuesday in Abu Dhabi’s main sports arena. It is expected to draw some 135,000 people in what some have called the largest show of public Christian worship on the Arabian Peninsula. The UAE is home to more than one million Christians.
The Pope’s visit also comes at a time when the Arab World is increasingly engaging in a rapprochement with the global Jewish community and in particular, Israel. The UAE has been one of the leading exponents of this approach.
Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, who traveled to the UAE for the occasion, said on Sunday that the emergence of a small Jewish community in the country was a ray of hope in the region.
The UAE tolerates the celebration of Jewish holidays and ceremonies in the private sphere without interference and allows the teaching of Judaism at university. So far, however, the Jewish community in the UAE has not been provided with an official place of worship. This could soon change.
“I saw a small and vibrant Jewish community that wants to live here, wants to be Jewish, who feel comfortable being Jewish,” Rabbi Schudrich noted. “This is something that was not obvious three to five years ago.”
Schuderich continued: “There were Jews in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and across North Africa, but this corner they didn’t get to (…) So the fact the newest Jewish community is in an Arab country is a tremendous statement.”
The chief rabbi added that the papal visit sends a powerful message. “With the coming of the Pope, where tens of millions will see that photograph of all the religions sitting together, it confronts a wrong stereotype.”
In October, Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev visited the UAE for the first time. During the historic trip, Regev visited the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and inscribed in the mosque’s visitor’s book in Hebrew: “I wish a good life and peace for all.” Moved to tears, she also witnessed how Israel’s national anthem – Hatikvah – was played for the first time during a judo tournament.
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