Pope Francis makes historic visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The pope was met by Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, in a landmark meeting

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Pope Francis has become the first pontiff to cross the threshold of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

The pope arrived just after 5pm on Monday and was met by Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar and chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders.

The meeting between the two religious figures representing Roman Catholicism and Islam was a powerful moment. Not only is the mosque a place of worship, it is also the burial place of the country's Founding President, Sheikh Zayed.

Despite some forecasts of rain, mainly blue skies stretched over the city in advance of the visit. Along the roads leading to the mosque, papal and UAE flags fluttered in the breeze and a sense of history hung in the air. At the mosque, security was tight, with police and the army guarding access to the building. Pope Francis arrived in his understated Kia amid a convoy of dozens of police cars, while three helicopters hovered overhead. The evening sun cast a warm glow over the mosque’s white marble as he stood with Mr Al Tayeb outside the entrance before they then went inside for a private meeting.

Roman Catholic Archbishop, Felix Machado, said the presence of the Pontiff at the mosque was a sign of great hope.

"[This] visit to the mosque and to the Muslim leaders here is not decorative or cosmetic. This reflects the great courage of the man. It is at the heart of his mission," he told The National.

“This cannot be simply thought of as one more visit. His words and gestures are significant and represent signs of hope in today’s hopeless situations.”

Dr Sultan Al Remeithi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Elders, said he hoped Monday’s meeting would create the conditions for Muslim and Christian relations to flourish.

“Pope Francis is one of the world’s biggest advocates for interfaith dialogue and this landmark meeting with the grand imam will no doubt serve as a positive step,” he said.

“The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is internationally recognised as a symbol of the values of tolerance and coexistence instilled by […] Sheikh Zayed,” he said. “Therefore it serves as the perfect backdrop for this symbolic meeting between these two great religious leaders.”

It was a busy day of engagements for Pope Francis, who is the first Pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. The historic meeting at the mosque took place after he met Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, at the Presidential Palace. Later he was set to visit the Founder’s Memorial, an installation dedicated to Sheikh Zayed.

Mr Machado said the decision by Pope Francis to visit the UAE aims to boost the Roman Catholic community and promote inter-faith dialogue.

“There is [at times] criticism from some within the Catholic Church as to why he is coming here when there is no native Catholic population,” he said. “But the church goes everywhere,” he said. “Pope Francis has taken three days and spent his time here where Catholics are migrants or workers.”

He said some Catholics also questioned if other religions listened to its efforts to promote dialogue. But the invitation for the pope to visit the UAE decisively answered that.

“Now this must be exploited in the good sense of that word.”

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque opened in 2007 in a symbolic place close to the Maqta Bridge, location of the first crossing between Abu Dhabi island and the mainland. The mosque can hold 55,000 worshippers, has 82 domes, four minarets, seven chandeliers and more than a thousand columns.

A thoughtful lighting scheme by British company Speirs and Major projects blue and white light on to the mosque to reflect the phases of the Moon.

“It is not some inward-looking building. It is a huge tourist attraction,” said Keith Bradshaw of Speirs and Major. “All these other attractions were popping up in Dubai, but Abu Dhabi chose to do it with a mosque and I think it was hugely inclusive that they did that.”

Today, more than five million people visit the mosque every year and about half of these are tourists.

Now Pope Francis has also visited a sacred place that sends a message of peace regardless of religion, culture or identity.