ABU DHABI – Pope Francis began on Monday his historic visit to the United Arab Emirates at the presidential palace in the capital, Abu Dhabi, in what was the first-ever trip to the Arabian Peninsula by any Catholic pontiff.
The head of the Catholic Church met with UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan as he got the official visit underway.
He arrived in the Gulf nation Sunday night, where he was welcomed by Crown Prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE’s armed forces, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the presidential airport.
Upon his arrival at the presidential palace in Abu Dhabi, the pontiff was greeted by a military band’s rendition of the Emirati national anthem.
The Catholic leader’s visit to the Arab Gulf was scheduled to coincide with an interfaith meeting with several religious representatives, including Ahmed al-Tayeb, Egypt’s Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the world’s largest Sunni Islamic center of learning.
“I am visiting that country as a brother, in order to write a page of dialogue together, and to travel paths of peace together,” Francis said in a message shared on his official Twitter account before flying to the UAE.
Later on in the day, both clerics visited the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi and attended a ceremony at the Founder’s Memorial, which pays tribute to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s first president.
In comparison to its more conservative neighbors, the UAE is considered one of the most tolerant countries in the region when it comes to its Christian minority.
Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE is to highlight the little-known Catholic community in the nation, which is mainly comprised of Filipinos and Indians, many of them migrant workers.
The Emirati government has allocated its Christian population with land and churches, where they can practice their faith, although some restrictions do exist.
For example, churches in the UAE are not permitted to have bell towers of crosses on their facade and there are no Christian places of worship in two of the country’s seven Emirates.
Meanwhile, the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Abraham Shorka, said the inter-religious meeting marked a wonderful initiative for communities to break the ice and get to know each other.
Shorka explained that there was hostility against Jews in the Arab world due to their association with Israel, noting it was necessary to speak up in the religious sphere.
On Tuesday, roughly 130,000 worshipers are expected to gather in a sports stadium for an open-air mass with the pope, scheduled to take place in the Emirati capital.
The historic nature of the visit created a huge media buzz as the trip was being closely watched around the world.