DUBAI: Pope Francis’s unprecedented three-day visit to the UAE will not only mark the first official papal trip to the GCC, but also carry hopes with it of a new era of religious tolerance in the Gulf.
Bishop Paul Hinder, of the Apostolic Vicariate for Southern Arabia, based at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, said that there was no person better placed to deliver the message of peace and mutual understanding than the 82-year-old pontiff.
“This visit is centered on the ‘human fraternity for inter-religious dialogue,’ and I would say Pope Francis is truly the right person to stress this point — to show how it works, to show how to bypass borders and approach each other without fear,” Hinder told Arab News. “That is something important and, for this, I would say the pope is extraordinary.
“He is not afraid to meet people of completely different cultures and faiths.”
Hinder said that he hoped the pope’s visit would give fresh impetus to the “policy of tolerance,” which he felt some needed to adhere to more than others.
The pope was invited to the UAE by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, during his visit to the Vatican City in 2016. The pope’s visit coincides with the UAE’s celebration of the Year of Tolerance, declared by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in December last year.
“Tolerance can be something passive, but I think the goal has to be more, it has to be a mutual understanding and an approach which accepts the different faiths and mentalities of other human beings,” said Hinder. The pope had a “unique” way of reading a person’s suffering and helping them regardless of race, religion, culture or faith, he added.
“He is someone who has a pastoral approach; he doesn’t look at, as I would say, ‘the book,’ he looks at the person. That gives him an inner freedom which many others do not have, to have an approach which looks first at the human being … Pope Francis approaches people as Jesus did.”
The pontiff will make a private visit to St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Tuesday, the last day of his tour, where he will meet with 300 members of the congregation, many families with children with special needs, as well as the sick and elderly.
Hinder will be part of the official delegation appointed to the pope during his stay in the UAE.
More than 1 million Christians live and work in the UAE, most of them Catholics. While formal relations between the UAE and the Vatican were established in 2007, Catholics have enjoyed the freedom to worship there since before the country was formed, with St. Joseph’s Cathedral being established in 1962.
“The relationship has been good (with the UAE) since the beginning, since we were first here — and that has developed,” said Hinder. “I always enjoy the relationship and, as the bishop, I have great respect for the authorities and their concerns for the church and for me as head of the Catholic church in the region.
“I have great admiration for the policy of this country regarding tolerance. I can see the UAE’s interest in showing itself to the world as a country open to other people and, in a certain sense, as a model of society that teaches people of different cultures and different faiths how they can live together in peace and harmony.”
Ahead of the pope arriving in Abu Dhabi, choristers have been busy rehearsing hymns, organizers have been making last-minute preparations, and the excitement of the Christian population has reached fever pitch.
Theresa Dorado, 40, from the Philippines, is one of an estimated 135,000 people who will attend a papal Mass at Zayed Sports City on Tuesday.
Speaking outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral, where thousands of Catholics attend Mass every week, she said: “I got a message by mail saying I had got a ticket. I was over the moon. I am excited because it will be the first time that I have seen the pope. It will be a memorable occasion for Abu Dhabi.”
Filipino Chaberyl Celoso, a nurse with the Abu Dhabi Health Services Co. (SEHA), has been selected to assist with medical support at the stadium during the event.
“I am so excited to be involved. This is the first time the GCC has had someone from the Vatican City here, and it couldn’t be a more high-ranking individual. The whole community is very excited. I don’t mind if I get a glimpse of the pope or not. I just want to hear his voice and what he has to say to the people.”
Ese Aazagbaesuweli, from Nigeria, is also looking forward to the visit. “It will be an experience of a lifetime. I didn’t manage to get a ticket, but I will be glued to my TV.
“We are in a Muslim country, and I am so impressed he is coming here, especially now, in the Year of Tolerance.
“We are all the same; Muslims, Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, we believe in the same thing — peace. And I believe no region teaches violence, all religions teach peace, and I hope this visit will remind people of that.”
Myra Esguerra, 50, from the Philippines, was still waiting to hear if she had managed to get a ticket for the Mass. “Even if I don’t get one, I will somehow hopefully get to see him (the pope) pass by,” she said.
Vanessa Unigo, who moved from the Philippines four months ago to work as a nanny in Abu Dhabi, hopes it will be the second time she sees a sitting pope. Almost 24 years ago, Unigo met Pope John Paul II during World Youth Day in Manila.
Maria Joshy, 13, from Kerala, in India, will be attending the public Mass with her family. She said: “I have been to (the Vatican) in Rome but never seen a pope.”
Friends Baltazar Dano and Sedfreygian Fernandez, also from the Philippines, are hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. “We are very happy because it is the first time he has visited here,” said Dano. “Around the UAE, all Catholics are excited.”
Pope memorabilia, including T-shirts and baseball caps, has been selling fast at stalls outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
The congregation, led by Father Gandolf Wild, were told to pray for the “safe and successful” visit of the pope. “The pope’s visit will launch this Year of Tolerance, and there will be many other initiatives to spread the spirit of tolerance … and the inclusion of all regardless of health and ability,” said Wild.
“We encourage all to work together in peace and harmony and we know that Pope Francis has the ability to reach out to people and touch their hearts.”