by Tess Daniels
Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on February 3-5 in a landmark trip that marked the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.
The Pope’s visit was a remarkable step for the UAE, a country not ordinarily known for its religious freedom. Granted, the UAE is more tolerant of different religions than some of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. Though the UAE’s constitution establishes Islam as the country’s official religion, it also “guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals,”according to a 2017 State Department report. The UAE has dedicated this year to “tolerance,” promoting openness to people and cultures from around the world.
However, the country is still far from religious freedom. There are strict laws against proselytizing by non-Muslims; blasphemy and converting from Islam are strictly prohibited, and those who do so face harsh punishments, possibly including the death penalty. Furthermore, although Francis’s visit is an explicit step toward greater tolerance and inter-faith dialogue (particularly between the Muslim and Christian faiths), some saw Francis’s visit as giving the UAE cover for their practices. They protested that Francis was simply providing media coverage to hide the UAE’s still-prevalent religious restrictions and discrimination against migrants, who are largely denied the possibility of citizenship. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, is also involved in a devastating humanitarian conflict in Yemen.
Pope Francis did speak out against conflict in the region, including the war in Yemen. In front of an audience of religious leaders, the pontiff condemned the violence, saying, “War cannot create anything but misery; weapons bring nothing but death.”
He added, “I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya.”
On his return from the UAE Pope Francis told reporters that he found “good will to start peace processes”in Yemen.
On the final day of his trip, Pope Francis celebrated a public Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium in the capital city of Abu Dhabi. The mass drew about 4,000 Muslims and about 135,000 people total. Many of the attendees were Catholic migrants from places such as the Philippines and South America. People from these nations form part of a large migrant community in the oil-rich country, and often work under harsh or discriminatory conditions.
Berna Ros, a Filipino migrant working in Abu Dhabi, was one of the thousands of people packed in the Zayed Sports City stadium to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis. Ros said seeing the pope was “the most special moment in my life. I am blessed.”
The 90-minute open-air Mass was considered by some to be the largest occurrence of public Christian worship ever seen on the Arabian Peninsula.
In his homily, delivered in Italian and translated into Arabic with English subtitles provided on screens, Francis directly addressed many of the expatriate Catholic workers in the stadium and beyond.
“It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affections of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future,”he said. “But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”
The Pope returned to Vatican City on the evening of February 5.