Pope's 2019 UAE visit offers light and hope in these darker days

Abrahamic Family House is among the legacy of Pope's message of peace

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A gathering of tens of thousands, coming together in a shared moment of celebration and hope.

In the context of today, with socially distanced worshipping for all faiths and large gatherings consigned to an uncertain future, the Pope's visit to the UAE seems like a lifetime ago.

Yet it is only two years since Pope Francis stood in front of an estimated congregation of 150,000 and spoke the words: “Peace be with you.”

The three-day visit, the first by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, was a time of celebration that still provides light and hope in the darker days of February 2021.

The Pope arrived in Abu Dhabi on the evening of February 3, on a flight from Rome named Shepherd One, and a country freshly washed by a rainstorm the pontiff rightly recognised as a blessing in a desert land.

He was greeted by a presidential guard of honour and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

Also there with a welcoming handshake was Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Sharif University and Chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders, a reminder that this visit would reach out beyond secular boundaries.

On the Pope’s second day in the emirate, he visited the Presidential Palace for official talks with the Crown Prince, who was joined by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, to discuss co-operation, dialogue and peace.

In the late afternoon, Pope Francis visited Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, before heading to the other end of the island to the Founder's Memorial, where a significant moment for interfaith relations took place.

It was there that the head of the Roman Catholic Church added his signature to the Human Fraternity Document, a pledge made with the Grand Iman of Al Azhar to advance a "culture of mutual respect” that would include all nationalities, backgrounds and beliefs.

The Pope’s final day was devoted to his flock. It began at 9am on February 5 with a blessing for the congregation at St Joseph's, the country’s first Roman Catholic church, which was also attended by 25 Emirati pupils as a gesture to 2019's Year of Tolerance.

From there, it was a short journey to Zayed Sports City with a transfer to the famous “Popemobile”, in this instance a white converted Mercedes G-Wagon, for the final leg of his visit.

Some worshippers had arrived at the stadium many hours before the service, setting out in coaches and cars well before sunrise from the far corners of the UAE.

They greeted the Pope with a thunderous roar of welcome as he entered the arena for the noon service, the papal procession only briefly halted by the spontaneous gesture of a young girl who ran towards him with a handwritten letter in Spanish.

Against a simple altar with a gold cross and a cloth of white, Pope Francis delivered a mass that included contributions in nine different language, from Arabic to Urdu, reflection of the UAE’s diversity, as well a gesture of respect to his hosts.

He also addressed the concerns of his flock, in a message that seems even more poignant today.

“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,” he told them.

The service ended with the Communion rite and an invitation for all present to greet their neighbours with a gesture of peace.

Then it was time for the Pope to return home, this time carried back to Rome by Etihad. “I saw a modern country, welcoming of so many,” he reflected of the UAE on his flight.

The shadow of Covid-19 has already cast doubt on his next journey, to Iraq, where Pope Francis is due to travel in early March, the first visit of a pope to a country long troubled by religious strife.

But the legacy of his trip to the UAE continues to illuminate the region, not just spiritually but visibly.

In Abu Dhabi, construction is well under way on the Abrahamic Family House on Saadiyat Island, a complex that will include a mosque, a Christian church and a Jewish synagogue, announced during his 2019 visit.

On Thursday February 4, the Pope will take part in a virtual meeting with the Grand Imam, hosted from Abu Dhabi by the Crown Prince to mark the International Day of Human Fraternity.

In our time of lockdown, the legacy of the Pope’s visit in 2019 is one that continues to open doors.