Several UAE residents of the Christian faith planned their journey from early on to be able to attend the first-of-its-kind event by the head of the Catholic Church
On a cool Tuesday morning in Abu Dhabi, hundreds of thousands of people from far and wide flocked towards Zayed Sports City to attend Pope Francis’s much anticipated Mass- the first to be held in the Arabian Peninsula.
A choir sang hymns as families excitedly hurried to the stadium’s entrance to take their seats.
One Mass-goer, Christine from the Philippines, limped her way through the crowds at about 7:00am using crutches.
“It’s worth it, to be in the presence of the pope means everything to me,” Christine said. She is almost 80 years old.
Several UAE residents of the Christian faith planned their journey from early on to be able to attend the first-of-its-kind event by the head of the Catholic Church. Many started their journey the night before, where their churches organized buses to take them from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Others flew in from across the globe, slept in their cars in front of the stadium, or started their journey to the historic Mass as early as 1:00am. The Mass was scheduled to start at 10:30am.
“We are coming from Spain. Last night we arrived, then we came by bus to Abu Dhabi at two in the morning. We are so excited. I’m very tired because we didn’t sleep, nothing. We want to see him and kiss him!” said Mass-goer Estel.
“We woke up at 1:00am to catch the bus and come here. This visit is a great blessing to us as Christians. I was actually born in the UAE so I am the son of this country, although I am originally Jordanian. So I am honored that the pope is visiting this country, my country,” said Mass-goer Sammy.
After arriving to the UAE on Sunday night, the head of the Catholic Church and the sovereign of the Vatican was accorded a state welcome to the UAE at a grand ceremony on Monday organized at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. His visit to the UAE is being billed as historic as he is the first pontiff to ever visit the Arabian Peninsula.
The unprecedented public celebration of Mass on Tuesday by Pope Francis gathered more than 120,000 worshippers inside the stadium, and a reported whopping 300,000 people outside the stadium who gathered in a designated area equipped with huge screens.
The Pontiff is in the Gulf country to promote inter-faith dialogue, and to mark the UAE’s Year of Tolerance, which was highly showcased throughout the visit.
Before being interviewed, Mary Arbash, who is originally from Syria, was handed a Lebanese flag by an attendee who thought she was Lebanese. Laughingly, she exclaimed that she is actually Syrian but swore that she would wear it in the name of tolerance, and to showcase the essence of the pope’s visit.
“Hey to all my friends in Lebanon! We are extremely excited that the pope is here. We weren’t expecting, it was almost unimaginable. We all have no words to describe our joy with this event,” Arbash said.
Religious leaders gather
Abu Dhabi’s opulent Emirates Palace hotel also witnessed an unusual flurry of activities on Monday.
Archbishops in long black robes and sheikhs wearing turbans crowded in front of an information desk to get their credentials to enter the Conference of Fraternity, marking the rare visit of Pope Francis to the UAE.
The religious leaders happily mingled together and attended a series of meetings and lectures all themed around tolerance, marking the ‘Year of Tolerance’ in the UAE.
Julio Murray, the bishop of the diocese of Panama and the archbishop of the church in Central America, who flew in from Panama, was immersed in conversation with an Anglican priest who serves in Amman. The pair were even snapping some selfies to share with their churches back home.
“I think this event is very important to make people aware that Christians and Muslims, especially on the level of leadership, are working together and listening to each other, respecting each other, receiving each other, and accepting each other,” Reverend George Al Kopti said.
“My worry usually is that what we speak in public, in conferences, needs to be implemented in the grassroots in our society. I need to go back to my church and teach about what I learned here. And the same thing, Muslim sheikhs need to go back and teach about what they learned. We need to unify our speech. We can’t talk in public about something, and in private sessions a different thing,” he added.
Prior to the conference, the pope was welcomed at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi where he stood between Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, and was accorded full military honors, including a 21-gun salute and fly-past leaving behind a trail of yellow smoke.