Pope's visit marks new chapter in interfaith relations

The tidal wave of euphoria that greeted Pope Francis gave an indication of the loyalty and hope he inspires

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - February 05, 2019: The Pope arrives. Pope Francis takes a large public mass to mark his land mark visit to the UAE. Tuesday the 5th of February 2019 at Zayed Sports city stadium, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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You did not have to be either Catholic or present in Zayed Sport City stadium on Tuesday to have been moved by the extraordinary scenes of the holy mass held by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi. From the moment he stepped off Shepherd One on Sunday to the tidal wave of euphoria that greeted him when his Popemobile glided into the stadium, millions in the country and beyond have been touched by his compassionate words and actions, regardless of creed. The fervour and excitement of the 150,000 worshippers, who came from far and wide to see the first Catholic Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula and gathered both inside and outside the stadium, gave some small indication of the loyalty and hope he inspires. Many had endured 11-hour journeys, walked three kilometres and waited patiently for hours in the sun. Thousands who did not have tickets clustered outside the stadium, desperate to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. When he finally arrived, many wept with joy. An outpouring of love and affection often greets the Pope on his travels, but for such a historic moment of the first Papal visit, it had special resonance.

The crowd which gathered to greet him mirrored the diversity of the UAE; the mass was multilingual, with readings in 10 languages, from English and Italian to Tagalog, Urdu and Arabic. People of all backgrounds attended and were addressed in their own tongue, while the Minister for Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak and UAE Minister for Culture, Noura Al Kaabi were among officials who heard a mass that was as inclusive as it was historic. As Pope Francis said in his Homily, "it is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones". Not only is it significant that Catholics in the UAE have been visited by the highest figure in their church; it is also a reminder that this country is their home from home.

Beyond the lives of the Catholics that flocked to the mass, this visit will have reverberations for years to come. The human fraternity document signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed Al Tayeb, together with the signing of foundation stones for a new church and mosque in celebration of interfaith relations, heralds a new dawn in relations between two of the world’s great faiths, which together boast 2.7 billion followers. Strengthening this bond – vital for peace across the world – is part of the visit’s tangible, lasting legacy. Indeed, there is no greater symbol of interfaith harmony than the sight of Pope Francis in the UAE.

The departing Pope leaves concrete signs of progress in advancing interfaith dialogue. But that is not all, for Pope Francis wears two hats. While the first – that of a campaigning spiritual leader – was evident on Monday, it was the second, that of the shepherd of his flock, that we saw on Tuesday. During his groundbreaking mass, Pope Francis touched the hearts of tens of thousands of Catholics and was received warmly by UAE leaders. The legacy of this trip will impact lives for years to come.