Pope Francis is set for a historic trip to the UAE, the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, as he seeks to boost the Vatican's outreach to Islam. The Argentine pontiff's trip to the United Arab Emirates "couldn't have come at a better time", said Bishop Paul Hinder of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia -- which encompasses the UAE, Oman and Yemen. "With advanced communication tools at everyone's disposal, we are better informed, and this can be put into a broader perspective when we couple it with dialogue," he told AFP. Pope Francis, who has made strengthening ties between the two largest religions a cornerstone of his papacy, will head to Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
During his three-day visit, the pope will take part in an interfaith conference and meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's prestigious seat of learning. The papal visit is widely seen as a stepping stone to broader interreligious dialogue in the region.
The UAE -- which has made no secret of its focus on soft power -- prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity.
But it has been criticised by rights groups for its involvement in a bloody Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and for upholding a 10-year prison term against activist Ahmed Mansoor on December 31 -- two weeks after the UAE declared 2019 the "Year of Tolerance".
Amnesty International on Friday urged the pope to raise the cases of jailed activists and not to allow his visit to be used "to gloss over the appalling human rights record" of the Emirates. "We are calling on Pope Francis to raise the issue of their (rights activists') incarceration with his hosts," Amnesty said. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, who invited the pope to the UAE, on Thursday described the pontiff as "the man of peace and love".
"We are hopeful that generations to come will prosper in peace and security," he said in a tweet anticipating the meeting between the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed. In a video message to the Emirati people on Thursday, Pope Francis said: "I am happy ... to write on your dear land a new page in the relations between religions, confirming that we are brothers although different."
On the last day of his trip, Pope Francis will lead a mass in Abu Dhabi to be attended by more than 130,000 people -- the largest gathering ever in the UAE, according to local media. Catholics attending the open-air mass queued for hours at St Mary's Catholic Church in Dubai on Wednesday to collect their tickets.
Parishes across the country were allocated a certain number of passes with St Mary's Catholic Church receiving 41,000 tickets, according to priest Lennie Connully. He said more than 50,000 members of the congregation had asked to attend the historic mass at Zayed Sports City stadium.
Over 2,000 buses will be transporting worshippers from across the country to Abu Dhabi. For Filipina Mylene Lao Estipona, 43, a cancer survivor, the time-consuming journey to see Pope Francis is a small price to pay for a life-long dream.
She said her faith gave her a "second chance" at life and the strength to beat cancer. "I thank God that I have a ticket. I really prayed, and it's an answered prayer," said the dental hygienist, who has been living in the UAE for 13 years.
The UAE has the largest number of Catholic churches in the region with eight. Oman, Kuwait and Yemen each have four, while Qatar and Bahrain have one each. Gulf kingpin Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim places of worship.
Nearly 80 per cent of the population of the UAE is Muslim, while Christians constitute around nine percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. The UAE authorities control all religious activities and suppress any group that uses religion for political ends, notably Islamists.
"We do not want the pulpits to become a platform for disseminating hate and extremism and instigating violence, as we have seen in many countries, including in Europe," a UAE official told AFP on condition of anonymity. According to Bishop Hinder, nearly one million Catholics live in the Emirates, the majority from the Philippines and India.
Pope Francis, who made history when he was named the first Latin American pontiff in 2013, is known as the "people's pope".