The Pope celebrated the largest Holy Mass ever to be held on the Arab Peninsula in Abu Dhabi. But what will be the result of the papal visit?

Gregory Fonseka is grateful: “I already experienced Pope Francis in Sri Lanka, my homeland. But I would never have thought that he would be celebrating Holy Mass here in Abu Dhabi. It has strengthened my faith in Jesus. Thank you, Pope Francis.” The local church in the United Arab Emirates is made up of people like Gregory, a foreign worker. The Catholic church has about one million members there. They are served by a total of nine parishes – a number that is of course far too small for so many people. They temporarily live and work in the country, which grants them the freedom to attend religious services, but not full religious freedom. This is no different for the citizens of the Emirates; they are prohibited from converting to Christianity or another religion. In theory, the renunciation of Islam is punishable by death, even if this punishment is not executed. Nonetheless, converts are under massive pressure from their families. Christian proselytizing is prohibited and punished with deportation.

In view of this, the Holy Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on Tuesday morning was something quite special. Pope Francis has in fact set a number of benchmarks simultaneously by holding the large Mass in Sheikh Zayed Stadium in the capital city of the Emirates. For the first time ever, a Catholic church leader has celebrated Holy Mass in the heartland of Islam, only a few hundred kilometres from Mecca. And it was not just any Mass, but the largest service ever to be celebrated on the Arab Peninsula. More than 160 000 Christians gathered in and around the stadium on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. They cheered enthusiastically when the Pope was driven through the masses in an open car. The fact that the divine service was held on public property was another first. In this country where Islam is the official state religion, Christians may celebrate divine services within the confines of a church. Church bells and crosses that are visible from the outside are not permitted. However, the celebration of Holy Mass in a state-owned building, broadcast on television, attended by members of the government: that was something special. A gigantic cross hung resplendent over the altar. Thousands of Muslims were present when Pope Francis delivered a homily on the Sermon on the Mount as a roadmap for Christian life. The crowd applauded appreciatively when Bishop Paul Hinder thanked the crown prince of the Emirates for the opportunity to celebrate Mass in a public setting. “The ruling family is in fact taking a risk by allowing this,” a journalist from Abu Dhabi, who does not wish to be named, commented. “Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia, for example, will not approve of the public celebration of Holy Mass on Islamic soil.”

More than 160 000 Christians gathered in and around the stadium on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

More than 160 000 Christians gathered in and around the stadium on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

But what will be the result of the papal visit? Will circumstances change for the better for the Christians living in the region? Bishop Camillo Ballin, the Apostolic Vicar for northern Arabia, is sceptical. Similar to the Apostolic Vicariate for Southern Arabia, the region Pope Francis has just visited, millions of Christians live as foreign workers in the region that is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Religious freedom does not exist in any of these countries. In a talk with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Abu Dhabi, Bishop Ballin commented, “The visit of the pope encourages Christians in the northern part of the Arab Peninsula to live their faith with even more conviction and to share human fellowship with Muslims. I am also certain that the interfaith meeting here in Abu Dhabi can foster a new mentality. But fundamental changes simply do not happen within 24 hours. I therefore do not expect any concrete improvements.”

The fact that the divine service was held on public property was another first.

The fact that the divine service was held on public property was another first.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Church, a Church that is united with Rome, is more optimistic. He considers the meeting between the Holy Father and leading representatives of Islam such as the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University to have been an important event for the relationship between Islam and Christianity. “Of course something will change, even in Saudi Arabia. There are no churches there and no public celebration of Mass. The meeting between the pope and the representatives of Islam will have consequences. But it will need time”, stated to ACN.

George Samia, a young Catholic who travelled to Abu Dhabi from neighbouring Dubai for the papal Mass, is very positive about the outcome. “The papal visit was an opportunity for non-Christians to learn more about Christianity and its message of love. It was wonderful. I am proud that I was able to be here for this historic event.”

Catholic Church leaders from the Near East have emphasised the significance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. “I believe that this is a very positive sign for the relationship between Islam and Christianity in the region,” Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, head of the Coptic Catholic Church, commented. In a talk with Aid to the Church in Need on Monday in Abu Dhabi, he said, “We Christians in Egypt may harbour renewed hope. The fruits will not become apparent immediately, but the message of tolerance and fraternity has been sown.”

Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Sidrak (Patriarch of the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt) during Abu Dhabi conference on human fraternity.

Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Sidrak (Patriarch of the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt) during Abu Dhabi conference on human fraternity.

The importance of the meeting that took place on Monday in Abu Dhabi between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University of Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayeb, one of the highest Sunni authorities, cannot be stressed enough, the Church leader explained. “This visit will help to correct the false image that many Muslims have of Christianity,” said the Patriarch, which Church is united with Rome. “Conversely, many Christians will realise that the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. The Islamic authorities want to show that they have nothing to do with terrorism.”

The pontiff’s three-day visit is the first time the head of the Catholic Church has travelled to the Arabian Peninsula, the home of Islam.

The pontiff’s three-day visit is the first time the head of the Catholic Church has travelled to the Arabian Peninsula, the home of Islam.

In the Holy Land as well, there were hope that the papal visit would be a source of momentum. In a talk with Aid to the Church in Need on Monday in Abu Dhabi, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa said, “The message of fraternity and dialogue that the Pope has brought to the Arab Peninsula is hopefully a seed that will also take root in the Holy Land.” The Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem stayed in the Gulf State during the visit of Pope Francis. This is the first time in history that a pope has visited the Arab Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. Archbishop Pizzaballa continued, “We cannot expect this visit to bring a concrete solution. Only general statements can be made. However, the meeting itself is momentous because it gathers together religious leaders in a region that is the cradle of the monotheistic religions, but also one that is shaken by religious conflict. A meeting between the Pope and the Grand Imam is thus an important sign.”

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land.

According to Archbishop Pizzaballa, the Christian-Islamic dialogue has entered a new phase. “There is a before and after ISIS,” the Italian Franciscan said. “The Islamic-Christian dialogue began a long time ago. But it was very formal and general. With the appearance of ISIS, the dialogue became more concrete and more realistic. For all involved, it is about stopping aberrant behaviour as well as killing and massacre in the name of religion.” As religions in the Near and Middle East also have a political and social dimension, the archbishop continued, the issue has now become how to develop positive relationships with each other in everyday life.

On Monday, Pope Francis attended an interfaith meeting in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. The meeting with the grand imam of Cairo on Monday and the celebration of Holy Mass with 130 000 Christians on Tuesday were the highlights of the three-day trip. Pope Francis returned to Rome on Tuesday.

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