180,000 attend first-ever papal mass on the Arabian peninsula in Islamic history

Pope Francis and grand imam sign declaration for 'world peace' and religious diversity

Pope Francis
Pope Francis became the first Roman Catholic pope to step foot on the Arabian Peninsula by visiting Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on Feb. 3-5, 2019. |

An estimated 180,000 people attended the first-ever papal visit to take place in the cradle of Islam — the Arabian Peninsula — on Tuesday to celebrate what has been dubbed the “Year of Tolerance.”

Pope Francis wrapped up his historic visit to the United Arab Emirates Tuesday by delivering a mass to adoring Catholics at  Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

His visit marks the first time in the 1,400 years of Islamic history that a sitting pontiff has been invited by a Muslim leader to deliver a sermon on the same peninsula that also birthed the religion of Islam and houses two of its holiest cities, Mecca and Medina

According to American evangelical leader Johnnie Moore, who serves on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and is the chair of the recently-formed Congress of Christian Leaders, “it is impossible to exaggerate [the visit’s] significance.”

Cheers erupted as Pope Francis entered the stadium. Initial estimates say that there were about 135,000 in attendance. However, the UAE government now estimates the attendance was around 180,000.

Portions of the 90-minute mass were delivered in English, Italian, Arabic, Tagalog, Hindi and Korean.

The pope’s sermon offered a message of hope to the poor Catholics in attendance, centering his message around the Beatitudes “blessed are the meek” and “blessed are the merciful,” according to Gulf News.

"The Christian life means living out the joy of this blessedness, wanting to live life as a love story, the story of God's faithful love, he who never abandons us and wishes to be in communion with us always,” the pope was quoted as saying.

On Monday, Pope Francis signed onto a joint declaration with the grand imam of the prestigious Al-Azhar University, His Eminence Dr. Ahmad Al Tayyeb, titled “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

“The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings,” the document states. “This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”

The document was signed during a “Human Fraternity Meeting” with interfaith leaders. Pope Francis stressed the need for tolerance and religious freedom in the Middle East, a region where religious minorities are highly persecuted.

The leaders involved in the meeting included hundreds of imams, muftis, pastors and other religious leaders.

In that meeting, Francis condemned what he said is the “misery” of war. He stressed that faith leaders have a duty to reject war. According to Al Jazeera, Pope Francis condemned violence in places like Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.

“War cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death," Pope Francis said on Monday.

He stated that “every form of violence” should be “condemned without hesitation.”  

"No violence can be justified in the name of religion,” he argued.

The visit comes as the UAE has proclaimed 2019, the “Year of Tolerance.” Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was presented with the declaration before Francis’ departure.

According to Moore, who has been involved in various religious tolerance efforts worldwide, the papal visit and declaration that was signed Monday was a “profound statement to the broader Islamic world.”

“Nearly every Arabic language paper in the entire region is featuring the visit on its front page,” Moore wrote in an op-ed. “All of these efforts have an obvious intention – they are meant to signal a new era in the Arab world, for a new generation that is tired of the bastardizing of their religion by extremists.”

“The UAE has long been a beacon of openness, freedom and tolerance in the Islamic world,” Moore added. “Those values have emanated from its famous business and tourism cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But this week’s events have taken those efforts to another plane, entirely.”

Pope Francis departed from UAE on Tuesday afternoon.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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