To those familiar with Pope Francis and his diplomatic finesse, this papal visit did not come as a total surprise. The agenda of inter-religious dialogue, reconciliation and unification has been his centre-piece since the inception of his papacy.
Even at that, the world was taken by storm when the pontiff arrived Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, to spend time on the Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam.
Few papal visits have been quite so historically significant, momentous, and so widely welcomed.
For Pope Francis himself, the theme of this visit was “fraternity.” He thus described it as “marking a new page” in the history of dialogue between Christianity and Islam and meant to serve as a push-back against what he called a “strong temptation to see a clash between [the] Christian and Islamic civilizations.”
The United Arab Emirates, the Holy Father said, “is a crossroads between East and West, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious oasis,” and therefore well suited to serve as model for promoting the culture of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
The Pope’s visit curiously coincided with the 800th anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi’s visit to Sultan al- Malik al-Kamil, a situation the Holy Father ascribed to divine providence.
During the 39-hour visit, Pope Francis signed a fraternal Muslim-Catholic joint declaration condemning violence committed in the name of religion, which has been described as “historic, seeing that such a move was utterly unthinkable only a few years ago.
“It was an extremely spiritual experience for many,” observed Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, who described the visit as a “special grace,” saying he was overwhelmed at the welcome the Holy Father received from the Mammoth crowd that attended this open air mass he celebrated in Abu Dhabi.
For the UAE, whose government had been working toward the papal visit for years, the trip served to underscore their drive to portray an image of tolerance and openness in the Arabian Peninsula, which for centuries was closed to other religious and forbade churches. Today, nearly a million Catholics, all immigrants, live in the century of over nine million people.
The ground-breaking papal visit lasted from February 3 to 5th, 2019.