ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The soft hymns of “Hallelujah” boomed from speakers Tuesday as Pope Francis celebrated the first papal Mass in the Arabian Peninsula for about 180,000 people, capping a visit to the United Arab Emirates that emphasized the presence of minority Christians in the region and a greater understanding with Islam.
It was considered to be the largest display of public worship by Christians on the peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. A large, golden-hued cross on an all-white stage provided a simple and profound backdrop.
The Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium, named for the founding father of the UAE, drew Catholics from 100 countries, including the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Uganda and Lebanon, reflecting the range of nationalities drawn to the Emirates’ promise of jobs, safety and tolerance.
Cheers erupted inside and outside the stadium when Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided pope mobile, with chants of “Viva il Papa” and “We love you!” Yellow and white Vatican flags decorated the stadium, and smaller versions were handed out to worshippers inside.
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Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said about 180,000 people attended, with 135,000 tickets distributed for spots inside and outside the stadium to throngs eager for a glimpse of the pope.
Also in attendance were about 4,000 Muslims — evidence of the enormous diversity and emphasis for interreligious tolerance that the UAE promotes among the country’s 9 million people.
In his homily, delivered in Italian and translated into Arabic with English subtitles on giant video screens, Francis spoke to the many migrant workers who endure years of separation from their families in order to send money home.
“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,” he said. “But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”
Many worshippers wept throughout the sermon, their heads bowed in prayer; others kept their eyes focused on the pope and the screens carrying his message.
Monica Birungi, a hotel employee in Dubai who supports her family and 2-year-old daughter in Uganda, said Francis’ words about sacrifice resonated deeply with her.
“I came to Dubai to work for money to help my family, so when they talked about that … it made me feel at home,” she said.
The pope also told his flock — many of them low-wage earners — that they need not be involved in “superhuman” works to be faithful. It was a message extolling humility in a country that is home to the world’s biggest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa, and known for 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.
The Mass came a day after the pope joined hands with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the more than 1,000-year-old seat of learning in Sunni Islam, to produce a joint appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace and reject war.
A front-page photo in Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper featured Francis and el-Tayeb hugging under the words “One Human Family.”
The papal trip to the UAE, which began Sunday evening and ended after Tuesday’s Mass, was infused with symbolism, state pageantry and calls for peace. The logo for the visit depicted a dove with an olive branch.
The pope met with senior Muslim clerics in the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque on Monday before delivering a speech in front of Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, ministers, rabbis and swamis in the Emirati capital that began with the Muslim salutation “Asalaam alaikum” — or “peace be upon you.”
Francis’ appeal for peace comes as the UAE’s forces are involved in a Saudi-led war in Yemen that has driven the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In comments to reporters on his flight back to Rome, Francis said he sensed “good will to bring about a process of peace” in Yemen during his meetings with officials from the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s key ally in the war.
Asked what he made of the Emirates’ military-heavy welcome ceremony, which featured an artillery salute and an aircraft flyover, the pope said he viewed it as a gesture that was appropriate for the culture of his hosts.
“What I found here was a welcome so big that they wanted to do everything, big and little things, to show that the pope’s visit was good,” he said. “They wanted to make me feel that I was welcome.”
Francis added that he was struck in particular by the wisdom of the Muslim elders with whom he met and the wide diversity of people who live in the Emirates.
At the Mass, the elated crowd expressed appreciation for the pope’s homily.
“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.”
The crowd also expressed appreciation to UAE rulers for organizing the Mass in a country where Islam is the official religion.
“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 nearly 20 years. She attended the Mass with her husband and four sons, the youngest of whom held up sign with the pope’s photo that read: “Welcome Pope Francis. Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”
Pinto and her husband said that as Christians, they did not always feel safe in India, but in the UAE, “we feel we all are one. … They treat everyone equally.”
The Emirates’ Catholic community, estimated at 1 million, is something of an anomaly for the region — large, diverse and thriving at a time when the wider Middle East has seen Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of the Islamic State group and others.
Catholics in the UAE usually are foreigners working in jobs ranging from white-collar finance to construction. Most are Filipino and Indian, and can face precarious labor conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.
In an indication of the diversity of the Catholic flock, the prayers during Mass were read in a variety of languages and addressed the variety of hardships many face.
A prayer in the Indian language of Konkani called for public officials to be “illuminated” and promote the dignity of all, while the one in the Filipino language of Tagalog urged prayers for migrants and workers in the UAE so that “their sacrifice and work may blossom and sustain their families.” The one in French called for those who foment violence to change their ways and “stop wars, overcome hatred and help us forge links of justice and peace.”
Francis’ trip came 800 years after his peace-loving namesake St. Francis of Assisi visited an Egyptian sultan and marked the culmination of years of Holy See efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world after they hit a low during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.
Since then, religious fanaticism and faith-inspired wars have only grown, inspiring the pontiff’s efforts to promote tolerance and understanding.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.