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

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.


Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”