Abu Dhabi: Pope Francis on Monday (February 4) called for an end to wars in the Middle East during the first visit by the head of the Catholic church to the birthplace of Islam – the Arabian Peninsula.
Francis, who has made outreach to Muslim communities a cornerstone of his papacy, is on an historic three-day visit to the UAE.
He is scheduled to hold an open-air mass on Tuesday (February 5) for 135,000 of the country’s million Catholic residents, set to be the largest ever public gathering in the Gulf state.
The Pope held talks in Abu Dhabi on Monday (February 4) with Sheikh Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb – Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s prestigious seat of learning – before delivering an address at an interfaith meeting.
In his address, the pontiff pushed the need for justice, equality of citizens’ rights and an end to all wars, including in Yemen.
The UAE and neighbouring Saudi Arabia are key allies of the Yemeni government, which is locked in a war against Iran-backed rebels.
The Pope said all religious leaders had a “duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word war”.
“I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya,” he said at the interfaith meeting attended by Sheikh Ahmed and UAE leaders.
Sheikh Ahmed, who stressed in a speech that religion must never be used to justify violence, and the Pope signed a document that Al Azhar and the Vatican will work together to fight extremism.
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed gifted the Pope a deed for the plot of land on which the first church in the UAE was built.
Pope Francis in turn gave 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.