ABU DHABI: He may have arrived at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in a Kia, but surely even this most humble of pontiffs could not fail to have been impressed by Abu Dhabi’s crowning architectural gem.
Pope Francis is known as the people’s pope — he refuses to live in the palatial Vatican apartment set aside for him, and eschews lavish limousines. But no amount of low-key transport, like the minibus that shuttled him away from the airport, was going to hide the UAE capital city’s splendor.
Under an azure sky, a shimmer of cloud adding that quilted texture, Monday began with the pontiff being greeted at the Presidential Palace — a vast white building near the luxurious Emirates Palace Hotel.
There was a military band, and members of the UAE army, before jets flew above leaving a trail of yellow and white smoke — the colors of the Vatican flag — and a 21-gun salute echoed from behind the palace.
The Pope was driven up in his Kia to the front door of the palace, where he was greeted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
They stood for the national anthems, and shook hands with UAE government ministers and members of the Vatican delegation.
The leader of the troop walked to the three leaders, saluted, and then they turned and left.
A few hours later Pope Francis appeared again, his small Kia surrounded by a vast security convoy, a helicopter flying above as he arrived at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Pope Francis stepped out of his understated black car and shook hands with Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the imam of Al-Azhar, they posed for photos and then walked into the vast white place of worship through huge doors.
It is hard to imagine how even this pope, with all his humility, could not have felt a slight tingle of excitement as he saw the vast minarets climbing high into the sky, the vast domes softened by their subtle curves, the huge white-floor of the courtyard so clean that it provides a perfect mirror image of the building above it.
Pope Francis had arrived: The people’s pope on a quest for fraternity, asking for a unity of faiths.