Pope Francis’ trip to the United Arab Emirates – the first by a Pontiff to the Arab Peninsula – is receiving huge government and public support, according to the country’s bishop.
“I have only noticed signs of joy and pride that the Pope is coming to the Emirates”
Highlighting the importance of the three-day visit starting on Sunday (3rd February), Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, said: “Since the announcement of his visit was made, I have only noticed signs of joy and pride that the Pope is coming to the Emirates.”
Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need, he told the charity: “The government is also doing everything in its power to ensure that as many of our faithful as possible will be able to see the Pope.”
“It will be the first time that the Eucharist will be celebrated on public property that the [UAE] government has placed at our disposal for this purpose”
With more than 130,000 people due to attend the papal Mass – the largest gathering ever in the UAE, according to local media – Bishop Hinder said: “It will be the first time that the Eucharist will be celebrated on public property that the government has placed at our disposal for this purpose.
“A number of Muslims have contacted me to ask how they can help prepare for the visit. Many have expressed an interest in attending the Mass.”
Media reports state that almost 1,000 buses will bring the faithful from UAE’s largest city, Dubai, to Abu Dhabi, the capital.
Describing life for Christians in UAE, home to one million Catholics, mostly Indians and Filipinos, Bishop Hinder said: “I have been living in Abu Dhabi for the last 15 years and have never experienced any animosity… I see a deep respect for Christians, among the local population.”
The bishop added: “This is even more apparent now in the run-up to the papal visit.
“The decisive thing is that we Christians are credible witnesses of the message of Christ”
While “accepting with humility that [Christians] will never play first fiddle in this society”, Bishop Hinder said that he hoped “the visit of the Pope will be able to change the overall mood for the better… [but] the decisive thing is that we Christians are credible witnesses of the message of Christ.”
He went on to say: “Even if all that is achieved is greater mutual respect, [the Pope’s visit helps] make it possible to work together… in the commitment to peace [and] in the care for our common home of creation.”
Bishop Hinder, whose vicariate encompasses Oman and Yemen as well as the UAE, said that nowhere in the Arab world is religious freedom fully respected but that the situation “varies” greatly from country to country.
He added: “While in Saudi Arabia divine services are only tolerated when held in private in relatively small groups, in other countries, particularly here in the United Arab Emirates, churches have been built and are visited by thousands of worshipers each week, even daily, to celebrate Mass.”