Ecstatic cheers as Pope’s stadium show makes history

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Thousands of elated worshippers inside and around the stadium craned their necks, eager to get a glimpse of Pope Francis standing on the back of a white Popemobile. (AFP)
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The atmosphere was more like a rock concert than the beginning of a religious service when Pope Francis entered the stadium. (AFP)
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The 180,000-strong congregation made this the largest public Mass ever held in the Gulf. (AFP)
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The Papal Mass was predominantly for expats — many of whom live thousands of miles away from family and friends — a point not lost on the pontiff. (AFP)
Updated 05 February 2019
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Ecstatic cheers as Pope’s stadium show makes history

  • The 180,000-strong congregation made this the largest public Mass ever held in the Gulf
  • Stadium gates had opened at 5 a.m. to let worshippers enter

ABU DHABI: It was impossible not to be moved as Pope Francis entered Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, ripples of excitement among the worshippers building into ecstatic cheers on a warm Tuesday morning.

This was history in the making — the first time the head of the Roman Catholic Church had visited the Gulf, and the first time a pope had led Mass in the region.

And the 180,000-strong congregation made this the largest public Mass ever held in the Gulf.

Earlier, local celebrity Kris Fade, of Virgin Radio in the UAE, addressed the gathering, encouraging people to cheer in the minutes leading up to the pontiff’s arrival.

Fade thanked the UAE rulers for agreeing to the event — and the crowd’s cheers grew louder.

Helicopters hovered in the clear blue sky as the pope’s convoy neared the stadium.

Worshippers had been waiting for hours, getting little or no sleep as they traveled from across the country, some in a convoy of hundreds of buses that left Dubai at 11 p.m. the previous night.

Stadium gates had opened at 5 a.m. to let worshippers enter.

There had been a chill in the air the night before, but as the sun rose a feeling of warmth circled the excited congregation.

“I came straight here from work last night,” said Chris Hilis, a volunteer for the Catholic Church at the event.

“I was doing overtime at work before. I haven’t had any sleep, but it is worth it. I knew this was how it was going to be.”

In the background the choir sang, the 120 members of which had been selected in a series of auditions held after the announcement of the papal visit in December.

And then, at 10:30 a.m. — with the helicopters directly overhead — news arrived that the pope was about to enter the stadium. It was the moment the congregation had been waiting for.

First, security entered, then Pope Francis appeared. Thousands of elated worshippers inside and around the stadium craned their necks, eager to get a glimpse of the pontiff standing on the back of a white Popemobile.

The atmosphere was more like a rock concert than the beginning of a religious service, with excited chatter erupting into a chorus of cheering voices that filled the air.

The pope waved to the faithful, and leant across to bless a young girl who rushed out of the crowd to greet him. She walked back to her waiting family, a private moment in front of an audience of thousands in the stadium and millions worldwide.

Pope Francis circled the inside of the stadium, worshippers leaning out to touch him.

Then the congregation fell silent and the service began.

This was a service predominantly for expats — many of whom live thousands of miles away from family and friends — a point not lost on the pontiff, who paid tribute to them, saying: “It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones.”

Almost two hours after it began, the service came to an end with the congregation leaving as calmly as they arrived — ready to enjoy the rest of the day’s holiday awarded to any ticket holder who attended the Mass.


Sudan government arrests opposition leaders ahead of protest

Updated 1 min 12 sec ago
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Sudan government arrests opposition leaders ahead of protest

  • The Sudanese Congress Party says government arrested leaders of Umma and Communist parties, among others
  • The demonstrators want the President Al-Bashir to resign

CAIRO: A Sudanese opposition party says more than 10 opposition leaders have been arrested ahead of the latest day of protests urging President Omar al-Bashir to resign.
In a statement, the Sudanese Congress Party says security forces "pre-empted" demonstrations by arresting the deputy head of the Umma Party, Mariam Sadiq al-Mahdi; the party's Secretary-General Sara Naqdallah; Communist Party leader Mokhtar al-Khatib, and others.
Later, police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds who had gathered to march, near the Arab Market area in Khartoum.
Sudan has been rocked by a wave of protests since December calling on al-Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 military coup, to step down. Activists say at least 57 people have been killed, but the government tally stands at 30.