The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, knew exactly what he was doing when he invited Pope Francis to visit the Arabian Peninsula to inaugurate the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance.”
The Pope also knew what he was doing when he accepted the invitation. It was an opportunity for an historic Vatican moment—a sitting Pope to visit a Muslim stronghold. The visit, represents a historic first in 1,400 years of Islamic history, and it is impossible to exaggerate its significance.
The visit is not taking place in the shadows, either. Pope Francis delivered a public mass for more than 150,000 people in the national stadium. That gathering, which represents one of the largest public gatherings in the history of the Arab Sheikhdom, will be broadcast on live television throughout the entire Islamic world, as will the pope’s visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and his meetings with various religious leaders from around the world who are gathered here to commemorate his visit.
Adorning the street lights of Abu Dhabi during the Pope’s visit are two flags: the flag of UAE and the flag of the Vatican.
Meanwhile, in a profound statement to the broader Islamic world, the pope was warmly greeted upon his arrival by the Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, the oldest and most serious institution of Islamic learning in the entire Arab world.
Astonishingly, one of Saudi Arabia’s most important daily newspapers included on its front page, above-the-fold, an article entitled, “Saudi Arabia may feature in future Papal Visit.” That same Saudi newspaper also tweeted, “#PopeFrancis’s unprecedented three-day visit to the UAE will not only mark the first official papal trip ... but also carries hopes with it of a new era of religious tolerance in the Gulf.”
Nearly every Arabic language paper in the entire region is featuring the visit on its front page. All of these efforts have an obvious intention – they are meant to signal a new era in the Arab world. An era free from extremism.
UAE officials say that Francis’s public mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium in the capital city of Abu Dhabi drew about 4,000 Muslims and about 135,000 people total — many of them Catholic migrants from places such as the Philippines and South America.
Pope Francis’ visit and his mass were a remarkable and very public show of Catholic faith in a region that is not particularly known for religious tolerance. However, the leaders of the Emirates, where members of minority religions are prohibited from professing their faith on the media or in public, have sought to emphasize their openness to other faiths, declaring 2019 as “The Year of Tolerance” and sending its minister of tolerance to Tuesday’s Mass.
“That is why we are hosting this historical visit,” said Thani Ahmed al-Zeyoudi, the country’s minister of climate change and the environment. “To send a message that the U.A.E. model can be replicated anywhere around the world.”
Compared to its neighbor and ally, Saudi Arabia—where churches are illegal and outward displays of Christianity can be dangerous—the Emirates are significantly more tolerant. And on Tuesday, praise was effusive for the Emirates both on the stage and in the crowd.
Pope Francis didn’t go into any specific details on climate change on this trip, but his visit is still a symbolic milestone for the region, and for the favorite geopolitical issue of the Vatican—global warming.
Feel the pulse and vibration—the irresistible force—Someone is out there, saddling up His white horse.
“And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast” (Revelation 13:3).