Pope Francis and Grand Imam Al Azhar Sign Historical Declaration

Minnie Murray
February 6, 2019

ABU DHABI - Tens of thousands of Catholics and several thousand Muslims attended an unprecedented public celebration of Mass on Tuesday by Pope Francis, the first pontiff in history to visit the Arabian peninsula.

On Monday, Pope Francis called for an end to wars in the Middle East, particularly conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, as he spoke at an interfaith meeting.

Earlier on Monday, the pope was welcomed to the sprawling Presidential Palace for private talks with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and other UAE leaders. Horse-mounted guards escorted the pontiff's motorcade through the palace gardens.

Even for a nation known for excess, the Emiratis' red-carpet welcome was remarkable, especially for a pope who prides himself on simplicity.

Francis was also asked what he made of the Emirates' military-heavy welcome ceremony, which featured an artillery salute and an aircraft flyover that trailed the yellow and white smoke of the Holy See.

Francis' speech to the gathering later in the evening is the highlight of his brief, 40-hour visit to Abu Dhabi.

Pope Francis blesses worshippers during a Mass at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Since then, religious fanaticism and faith-inspired wars have only grown around the globe, inspiring the pontiff's efforts to promote tolerance and understanding.

The Jesuit pope capitalized on his relationship with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni learning, to make the historic trip.

The UAE now hosts eight Catholic churches due to the fact that almost one million Catholics live in the Emirates. The document, in Arabic and Italian, describes itself as being written in the name of "all victims of wars, persecution and injustice;. and those tortured in any part of the world, without distinction".

Yemen is the scene of what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, triggered by the intervention of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies in a war between the government and Huthi rebels.

Pope Francis' current visit is expected to bring a change in UAE's stance on the Yemen situation.

"We have to say it is really a big event for us which we never expected", said Sumitha Pinto, an Indian native who has lived in the UAE for almost 20 years.

Vaidyanathan, who converted from Hinduism to Catholicism while living in Dubai, said the Emirates' religious tolerance is commendable given the trends of the region. Political parties are banned, and local media censored.

"We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood", the document says.

Francis said that faith leaders have a duty to reject war as he called for religious freedom in the Muslim-majority region.

"Let us pray strongly because they are children who are hungry, who are thirsty, they don't have medicine and they are in danger of death."

"The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace", he added.

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