Pope Francis' historic visit to UAE to highlight religious freedom

On Tuesday Pope Francis will deliver a mass to at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi

On Tuesday Pope Francis will deliver a mass to at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi

The pope waved at an enthusiastic crowd carrying Vatican flags and banners as he drove into Zayed Sports City Stadium, where an altar with a large cross was set up for the open-air service in a country that borders the birthplace of Islam.

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.

The Pope will address an inter-faith gathering of over 1 million people at the Zayed Sports City on Tuesday.

On this whirlwind trip, Pope Francis came, along with his fellow religious leader His Eminence Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, to send a message of peace, tolerance, and fraternity, not only for the region, but globally.

"I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya", he said at the interfaith meeting attended by Sheikh Ahmed and UAE leaders.

The highlight of Francis' day comes on Monday afternoon when he is to meet privately with a group of Muslim elders and then addresses faith leaders in a show of religious tolerance in a Muslim region known for its restrictions on religious freedom.

The pope's three-day visit, which began on Sunday, has also brought Dr. Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar al-Sharif to the country.

"We have confidence in the greatness of the pope to be our advocate and the advocate for the Yemeni people", said Giovanna Reda, CAFOD's head of humanitarian programs for the Middle East.

It said "freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action" and that "pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God". On Sunday, before leaving Rome for Abu Dhabi, Francis said he was following the situation in Yemen "with great concern", and that the population was "exhausted by the lengthy conflict, and a great many children are suffering from hunger".

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The UAE is part of the Saudi-led military coalition engaged in the war in Yemen.

The UAE has dubbed 2019 its "year of tolerance", but rights groups have criticised the country for its role in Yemen, where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed since the Saudi-led alliance including the UAE joined the government's fight against the Huthis in 2015.

The Filipino Times newspaper reported that the Mass saw a 120-member choir, composed mostly of Filipinos, with Filipina conductress Joy Santos spearheading the multi-cultural voices who sang hymns in English, Arabic, and Latin.

In response, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said in a tweet that he "welcomed" the pontiff's prayers, calling on 2019 to be "the year of peace" in Yemen.

Meanwhile, a UAE and Saudi blockade of the country has driven millions to the brink of starvation.

However, while the UAE portrays itself as a tolerant country where different religions coexist, its continuous crackdown on dissident Muslim voices and harsh security measures on Islamic life remain.

Francis added, "Those who attack or overpower others are not blessed, but rather those that uphold Jesus' way of acting, he who saved us, and who was meek even towards his accusers".

"There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future", Francis told Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis and swamis gathered in the Emirati capital at a time when the UAE-backed Saudi war in Yemen has driven the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of starvation.

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