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Pope Francis makes history with Muslim dialogue in UAE 

Abu Dhabi, February 4

Pope Francis, the first leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics to visit the Arabian Peninsula, will attend an interfaith meeting in the UAE on Monday as part of his outreach to Muslims.

The pontiff arrived in a modest black Kia at Abu Dhabi’s presidential palace, where he was welcomed with a lavish military parade.

Officers fired 21 shots in the air, while jets flew overhead leaving white and yellow trails—the colours of the Vatican City flag.

The pope’s highly publicised 48-hour visit to the United Arab Emirates will also include an open-air mass on Tuesday for 135,000 of the Muslim country’s million Catholic residents, set to be the largest public gathering in the country’s history.

The pope was expected to raise the issue of Yemen, devastated by a war in which the UAE is a key player, in talks with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. 

Yemen is the scene of what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, triggered by the intervention of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies in a war between the government and Huthi rebels.

More than 10 million Yemenis now risk imminent starvation.

Sheikh Mohammed said on Monday that UAE rulers were “delighted” to meet the pontiff “in our homeland of tolerance”.

“We discussed enhancing cooperation, consolidating dialogue, tolerance, human coexistence and important initiatives to achieve peace, stability and development for peoples and societies,” he tweeted.

Pope Francis, who made history when he touched down in Abu Dhabi on Sunday night, said he came “as a brother, in order to write a page of dialogue together, and to travel paths of peace together”.

To mark the occasion, the pontiff offered the crown prince a framed medallion of the meeting between St. Francis Assisi—the pope’s namesake—and the Sultan of Egypt Malek al-Kamel, in 1219.

Sheikh Mohammed, in turn, offered a deed for the plot of land on which the first church in the UAE was built.

The pope was set to meet with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb—imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s prestigious seat of learning—later Monday.

Sheikh Ahmed greeted the pope personally with an embrace on Sunday night as the pontiff arrived in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi.

The emirate’s crown prince was also at the airport to greet the pontiff, who has made strengthening ties between Christianity and Islam a cornerstone of his papacy.

Hours before he flies back to Rome on Tuesday, the pope will lead a mass at a stadium in the capital.

The UAE has dubbed 2019 its “year of tolerance”, but rights groups have criticised the country for its role in Yemen, where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed since the Saudi-led alliance including the UAE joined the government’s fight against the Huthis in 2015.

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