Pope Francis makes history with Muslim dialogue in UAE

Expat children hold the candles while serving during the mass at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Jebel Ali in Dubai

Pope Francis on Sunday became the first pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula, just hours after issuing his strongest condemnation of the war in Yemen, where his host - the United Arab Emirates - has a leading military role.

The UAE has a sizeable Roman Catholic population and Pope Francis has referred to the country as a model of co-existence, a cause he has championed throughout his nearly six-year papacy.

Abu Dhabi allows Christians to practice their faith discreetly, unlike neighbouring Saudi Arabia which bans all non-Muslim places of worship.

Pope Francis will visit the UAE this year for a landmark, three-day visit.

This joint initiative exemplifies the model of tolerance and co-existence that the UAE offers to the world in a region that often seems vulnerable to extremist ideologies and sectarian strife.

Critics have noted, however, that the United Arab Emirates has a reputation of jailing any citizens who criticise the Emirati government.

The kingdom has also branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, viewing it as a threat to the country's system of hereditary rule. European nations learned this important lesson after two devastating world wars and on the back of the Cold War.

Turning to "Blessed are the peacemakers", Pope Francis said that a Christian "promotes peace, starting with the community where he or she lives".

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"We have to say it is really a big event for us which we never expected", said Sumitha Pinto, and Indian native who has lived in the UAE for almost 20 years. "These tragic realities are the effect of a deviation from religious teachings". But tolerance is not a one-way street: there are many examples of Muslim leaders and scholars being welcomed throughout Europe. "Observing the security and freedom of worship that minority faiths have in the UAE gives me hope for greater expansion of religious freedom in the UAE and for persecuted religious minorities across the Middle East".

Pope Francis walks with his pastoral staff as he celebrates a mass at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Pope Francis spoke alongside Sheik Ashamed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the 1,000 year old seat of Sunni Islam.

These events provide unparalleled opportunities to highlight the message of "human fraternity" and honour the shared desire to embrace diversity.

"There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future", he said.

The overly broad definition of terrorism fairly outlawed armed groups like Al Qaeda, but then also went on to name the Muslim Brotherhood, which participates in democratic elections across the region, as "extremists".

"It embodies our belief in the values of love & tolerance as a pathway for humanity towards peace, security, stability & rapprochement between different people & culture", he said. Pope Francis' historic decision to travel to the Arabian Peninsula is the antithesis of all that.

Francis stood somberly between Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Emirati vice president and prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, as the Vatican and Emirati anthems played and delegations were introduced.

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