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.


Mideast faces opioid crisis as it rages through developing world

Updated 13 December 2019

Mideast faces opioid crisis as it rages through developing world

  • Mass abuse of the opioid tramadol spans continents, from India to Africa to the Middle East
  • Abuse is now so rampant some countries consumed by it are asking international authorities to intervene

KAPURTHALA: Reports rolled in with escalating urgency — pills seized by the truckload, pills swallowed by schoolchildren, pills in the pockets of dead terrorists.
These pills, the world has been told, are safer than the OxyContins, the Vicodins, the fentanyls that have wreaked so much devastation. But now they are the root of what the United Nations named “the other opioid crisis” — an epidemic featured in fewer headlines than the American one, as it rages through the most vulnerable countries on the planet.
Mass abuse of the opioid tramadol spans continents, from India to Africa to the Middle East, creating international havoc some experts blame on a loophole in narcotics regulation and a miscalculation of the drug’s danger. The man-made opioid was touted as able to relieve pain with little risk of abuse. Unlike other opioids, tramadol flowed freely around the world, unburdened by international controls that track most dangerous drugs.
But abuse is now so rampant some countries consumed by it are asking international authorities to intervene.

Grunenthal, the German company that originally made the drug, is campaigning for the status quo, arguing international regulations make narcotics difficult to get in countries with disorganized health systems, and adding tramadol to the list would deprive patients in pain access to any opioid at all.
“This is a huge public health dilemma,” said Dr. Gilles Forte, the secretary of the World Health Organization’s committee that recommends how drugs should be regulated. Tramadol is available in war zones and impoverished nations because it is unregulated. But it is widely abused for the same exact reason. “It’s a really very complicated balance to strike.”
Tramadol is not as deadly as other opioids and the crisis isn’t killing with the ferocity of America’s struggle withe the drugs. Still, individual governments from the US to Egypt to Ukraine have realized the drug’s dangers are not as limited as believed and worked to rein in the tramadol trade. The north Indian state of Punjab, the center of India’s opioid epidemic, was the latest to crack down. The pills were everywhere, as legitimate medication sold in pharmacies, but also illicit counterfeits hawked by street vendors.
This year, authorities seized hundreds of thousands of tablets, banned most pharmacy sales and shut down counterfeit pill factories, pushing the price from 35 cents for a 10-pack to $14. The government opened a network of treatment centers, fearing those who had become opioid addicted would resort to heroin out of desperation. Hordes of people rushed in to seek help in dealing with excruciating withdrawal.
For some, tramadol had become as essential as food.
“Like if you don’t eat, you start to feel hungry. Similar is the case with not taking it,” said auto shop welder Deepak Arora, a gaunt 30-year-old who took 15 tablets day, so much he had to steal from his family to pay for pills. “You are like a dead person.”
Jeffery Bawa, an officer with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, realized what was happening in 2016.
Police began finding pills on terrorists, who traffic it to fund their networks and take it to bolster their capacity for violence, Bawa said.
Most of it was coming from India. The country’s sprawling pharmaceutical industry is fueled by cheap generics. Pill factories produce knock-offs and ship them in bulk around the world, in doses far exceeding medical limits.
In 2017, law enforcement reported that $75 million worth of tramadol from India was confiscated en route to the Islamic State terror group. Authorities intercepted 600,000 tablets headed for Boko Haram. Another 3 million were found in a pickup truck in Niger, in boxes disguised with UN logos. The agency warned that tramadol was playing “a direct role in the destabilization of the region.”
“We cannot let the situation get any further out of control,” that alert read.
Grunenthal has campaigned to keep tramadol unregulated. It funded surveys that found regulation would impede pain treatment, and paid consultants to travel to the WHO to make the case that it’s safer that other opioids.
Spokesman Stepan Kracala said regulation would not necessarily curtail illicit trade and could backfire: Some desperate pain patients turn to the black market if no legal options exist.
This has happened in India, which regulated tramadol in 2018. Regulators say exports overseas and abuse at home came down. But they acknowledge that the vastness of the pharmaceutical industry and the ingenuity of traffickers makes curtailing abuse and illegal exports all but impossible. Tramadol is still easy to find.
Jyoti Rani stood on her front steps and pointed to house after house in the small city of Kapurthala where she said tramadol is still sold in her neighborhood of narrow roads and open drains, where school-aged boys sit hunched over the street in the middle of a weekday.
Rani’s addiction began with heroin. When her 14-year-old son died, she fell into depression.
“I wanted to kill myself, but I ended up becoming an addict,” she cried. A doctor prescribed tramadol to help kick the habit — instead, she formed a new one.
Now she is among about 30,000 people in Punjab who go to government-run addiction clinics for daily treatment.
Countries’ efforts to control tramadol on their own often fail, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, particularly in places where addiction has taken hold.