Pope Francis on Tuesday concluded a historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula after celebrating the first-ever papal Mass in the country.
The celebration marked what is considered to be the largest showing of public Christian faith on the peninsula that birthed Islam.
Hymns of “Halleluja” boomed out from speakers a day after Francis made a broad appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace and reject war.
Cheers erupted inside and outside the Zayed Sports City Stadium as Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile, as chants of “Viva il Papa” and “We love you!” echoed from the crowd, estimated to be around 135,000.
Organizers said faithful from 100 countries would attend, as well as 4,000 Muslims from this Muslim federation — evidence of the enormous diversity among the 9 million people who live in the UAE.
The Emirates’ Catholic community is something an anomaly for the region — large, diverse and thriving at a time when the wider Mideast has seen an exodus of Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS and others.
The Catholic Church estimates as many as 1 million of the over 9 million living in the UAE are Catholic, nearly all of them foreigners drawn to the oil-rich federation to find work.
“It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future,” Francis said in a homily that was delivered in Italian and translated into Arabic with English subtitles on giant screens. “But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”
Francis also told his flock — many of them poor, manual labourers — that they need not build great “superhuman” works to be faithful.
It was a message deliberately extolling meekness in a country that is home to the world’s biggest skyscraper and is known for its opulence and excess.
“Jesus did not ask us to build great works or draw attention to ourselves with extraordinary gestures. He asked us to produce just one work of art, possible for everyone: our own life,” Francis said to an elated crowd.
“He is almost divine. He has a special charisma, which appeals to each one,” said Raphael Muntenkurian, 64, an Indian-native and former seminarian who has lived in the UAE for more than 30 years.
“Everybody is actually mesmerized by his appeal for peace and tolerance,” he said. “His simplicity and humility is always praiseworthy.”
In an indication of the diversity of the Catholic flock, the prayers during Mass were being read out in a variety of languages and addressed the variety of hardships that many face.
On Monday, the pope met with Emirati leaders and signed a document promoting “human fraternity” with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning. He also urged religious leaders to work together to reject the “miserable crudeness” of war and resist the “logic of armed power … the arming of borders, the raising of walls.”
“God is with those who seek peace,” he added.