The United Arab Emirates has branded a bridge, a new ministry, a family day at the park and even the entire year of 2019 under the banner theme of “tolerance,” as the country prepares to host Pope Francis starting Sunday in the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula.
Francis will spend less than 48 hours in the UAE and is due to make only two public addresses during the trip that starts on Sunday night.
The UAE, a federation of seven constituent monarchies led by President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is known for its gleaming cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Modern skylines draw tourists from around the world, bars exist next to mosques, men and women dressed in traditional garb brush past foreigners, and tight security and surveillance ensures high levels of safety.
Government bodies, public relations firms and even banks have been busy promoting the state’s version of tolerance in preparation for the pope’s visit, which includes a meeting on Monday with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost religious institution, and a mass on Tuesday before 135,000 people in Abu Dhabi.
The papal Mass in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City is expected to draw some 120,000 people.
“I am happy for this occasion the Lord has given me to write, on your dear land, a new page in the history of relations between religions,” Francis said in a video message on Thursday. It started in Arabic with the words Al Salamu Alaikum (Peace be with you).
“Faith in God unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion.”
In the video message, Pope Francis described the UAE as “a country which strives to be a model for coexistence and human fraternity, a meeting point of different civilizations and cultures. A place where people find a safe place to work, live freely and where differences are respected.”
The UAE has a Hindu temple in Dubai and a large one being built in Abu Dhabi on land donated by the country’s rulers to help accommodate the roughly 3.3 million Indians who live in the country. It is also home to around 1 million Catholics, including a sizeable Filipino community. In addition to several Catholic churches, there are numerous churches in the UAE of other Christian denominations, a Sikh temple and a space for Jewish worship.