Pope Francis makes first papal visit to Arab Gulf state

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Pope Francis is set to arrive in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday night, making him the first pontiff to visit an Arab Gulf state.

In a video address from the Vatican on Thursday, Pope Francis said the trip marked “a new page in the history of relations between religions, confirming that we are brothers and sisters, even though we are different.”

The overwhelming majority of Emiratis are Muslim, but the country hosts a large expatriate population, some 1.2 million of whom are Christian.

The majority of the UAE’s Christians are Indians and Filipinos.

The pontiff will spend three days in the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, where he will attend an interreligious conference with Jewish and Christian leaders. The trip culminates with a papal mass at the Zayed Sports City, expected to be the single largest gathering the country, with about 135,000 attendees.

An hour before leaving on his historic trip, the Pope prayed publicly for the “exhausted, hungry” victims of the war in Yemen.

“The population is exhausted by the long conflict and many, many children go hungry, but it is not possible to reach the food deposits,” Francis said in his weekly Angelus address at the Vatican.

“I appeal to those involved and to the international community to urgently work towards the observance of the agreed-to accords, to ensure the distribution of food and to work towards the good of the population,” he said.

The Pope then added an additional plea off the cuff, not included in his prepared remarks: “Let us pray loudly because there are children that are hungry, are thirsty, don’t have medicine and their lives are in danger. Let us hold onto this thought.”

The UAE has declared Tuesday a holiday for invitees to the mass.

It is Pope Francis’s seventh visit to a predominantly Muslim country, signaling a continuation of improving ties between the Vatican and the Islamic world. The Pope has sought to build bridges with the Muslim world by refusing to equate Islam with violence, arguing that all religions have fundamentalist elements and religious leaders must work together to combat all forms of fundamentalism and violence.

He is scheduled to meet for a fourth time with the head of the Al-Azhar mosque — considered by many to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam — during Monday’s interreligious conference.

Al-Azhar’s Imam Ahmad al-Tayeb had previously cut ties with the Vatican after Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, appeared to link Islam to violence in a 2006 speech.