Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi became historical today after Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, held the first papal mass in the Arabian Peninsula which is the birthplace of Islam.
The mass held with a large crucifix that looms over the altar, a rare sight in the UAE which is a predominantly Muslim country, welcomed almost more than 45,000 churchgoers, some which who have gathered outside of the venue because it can no longer accommodate the number of people who attended the historic event.
During the homily, the Pope praised the diversity of the crowd as “a choir composed of numerous nations, languages, and rites.”
Perhaps in a nod to acknowledge that majority of the 1.2 million Christians in the UAE are expats, he said: “It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future. But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”
The prayers during Tuesday’s papal mass were recited in six different languages, including French, Tagalog, Urdu, and Konkani for the benefit of attendees from various Christian denominations and other Muslims.
The historic papal mass in Abu Dhabi is a culmination of the 3-day papal visit to the country to attend an interreligious conference. Photos of the Pope together with Arab sheiks in traditional robe has been a powerful message of religious tolerance and coexistence.
However, human rights advocates dismissed Pope Francis’ description of the Emirates as “a land that seeks to be a model of coexistence,” arguing that officials have intensified its crackdown against dissenters. (READ: Pope Francis led the first Vatican visit to Arab Gulf)
The anticipation of the papal mass, a memorable and first Christian holiday declared by the government, had built steadily in the recent days and Christians and Muslims alike have prepared for this historic day.
“It’s historic. Christianity has been around in the region for a very long time,” Peter Hellyer, UAE historian, and writer said in an interview with CNN.
“To have a Catholic Pope for the first time in Arabia is of course historic. It’s historic for the Catholic community, I think it’s historic for the Catholic church, and it’s historic for the people of the peninsula and for the people of the UAE.” he added.
People gathered around the stadium to catch a glimpse of the pontiff as he makes his way to the venue hailing his iconic “Popemobile.” /apr