Pope Francis’ landmark visit to the United Arab Emirates in February will include a large open-air Mass in Abu Dhabi, a meeting with Muslim elders, and a private visit to the city’s cathedral. 

According to the full program for the Feb. 3-5 apostolic voyage published today by the Vatican (see below), the itinerary will also include an interfaith meeting during which the Pope will deliver a speech — the only one scheduled so far.

That meeting — the principal reason for the trip — will be on the theme “Human Fraternity.” The Church’s theme for the papal visit, the first ever by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, is “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”   

Francis is to meet privately the Muslim Council of Elders in Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on the second day of his visit, while on the final day he will celebrate Mass in Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City 43,000-seater stadium.

Shortly before the Mass, the Holy Father will make a private trip to the city’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, home to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia. It’s not clear yet whether he will have a meeting with some of the 100 or so priests serving two million Catholics across the Arabian Peninsula, but if it should happen, it’s likely to take place there. 

Security will be tight for the brief visit, and although nearby Yemen continues to suffer from a bloody 3-year conflict, the Pope is not expected to venture beyond Abu Dhabi over the three days. 

In Dec. 7 comments to the Register (see below), Bishop Paul Hinder, vicar apostolic of the apostolic vicariate of Southern Arabia,said the visit is “great news and is welcomed by all” and thanked the UAE government for its generosity in allowing the Mass to be celebrated. 

Bishop Hinder said that although freedom of worship exists in the UAE, external religious symbols are banned and conversions from Islam to Christianity continue to be strictly forbidden.  

Various other restrictions also remain in place, although he said the government has understood and supported the need for new churches to be built to cope with a burgeoning migrant population, many of whom are Catholics.  

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PROGRAM FOR POPE FRANCIS’ VISIT TO ABU DHABI, FEB. 3-5, 2019

 

Sunday, 3 February

Rome - Abu Dhabi 

13:00 Departure from Roma/Fiumicino Airport for Abu Dhabi                                             
22:00 Arrival at Abu Dhabi Presidential Airport Abu Dhabi OFFICIAL WELCOME  


Monday, 4 February

Abu Dhabi 

12:00 WELCOME CEREMONY Main entrance of the Presidential Palace                               
12:20 OFFICIAL VISIT TO THE CROWN PRINCE Presidential Palace
17:00 PRIVATE MEETING WITH THE MEMBERS OF THE MUSLIM COUNCIL OF ELDERS The Grand Mosque of Sheikh Zayed
18:10 INTERRELIGIOUS MEETING The Founder's Memorial
     

Tuesday, 5 February

Abu Dhabi - Rome 

09:15 PRIVATE VISIT TO THE CATHEDRAL St. Joseph's Cathedral, Abu Dhabi                                                
10:30 HOLY MASS Zayed Sports City, Abu Dhabi
12:40 FAREWELL CEREMONY Abu Dhabi Presidential Airport
13:00 Departure for Rome Abu Dhabi
17:00 Arrival at Roma/Ciampino International Airport Rome

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INTERVIEW WITH BISHOP PAUL HINDER

VICAR APOSTOLIC, APOSTOLIC VICARIATE OF SOUTHERN ARABIA

 

Your Excellency, what will the visit mean for the many migrant Catholics living in the region?

BISHOP HINDER: I see myself first of all as a pastor of migrants. In this area there are about a million Catholics, all foreigners. They are working above all in the fields of construction, education, and domestic work, and come from over a hundred countries. The greatest numbers are from the Philippines, India, and other parts of Asia. There is also a good number of Arabic-speaking faithful, the majority of which are from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Beyond this, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of Catholics from Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

This is great news and is welcome by all. The generosity of the UAE government has also been extended in making it possible to celebrate a Mass, which will be on February 5, 2019 at a public venue in Abu Dhabi. It will give an opportunity for many, who can organize and plan as it is a working week day, to attend this Mass. 

 

How might this improve religious tolerance and especially religious freedom for the faithful in the region? 

We already enjoy religious tolerance in the UAE and have been given place of worship and we are grateful for this and thank the UAE Government for this kindness. 

But we pray and hope that visit be an important step in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians and contribute to mutual understanding and peace-making in the Middle East

 

Is it a sign of a new openness to freedom of worship in the UAE and could it help in allowing more churches to be built in the Gulf?

Although the UAE is Islamic, other religions are tolerated and can have places of worship. For example, the Catholic Church has eight churches (parishes) in the UAE and four in the Sultanate of Oman. Currently we are building the ninth parish church in the western region of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. In the United Republic of Yemen, on the other hand, the pastoral life is paralyzed because of the war. Although there are no limitations on the furnishing of churches, external religious symbols are strictly forbidden. Our places of worship, in general, are located in places that are set apart. Conversions from Islam to another religion are rigorously prohibited. Worship has to take place in those places assigned by the individual governments. In the same way, any assembly of a religious nature must take place only within the structures made available to us for this purpose. It is within these limitations that we carry out our pastoral work.

So there has always been freedom to worship for all religions and the Government has always supported and understood that the growth and need for new Churches comes from the influx of migrant workers, who constitute a large number of the UAE population. 

 

What is the International Interfaith Meeting on "Human Fraternity”? Who is to be involved. Will it be like the interfaith meetings in Assisi?

This is still being developed and further information will be made available in due course of time and we will keep media informed leading up to the visit of Pope Francis.