Catholic migrants in UAE look forward to Pope's visit

DUBAI • Like millions of his compatriots, Filipino migrant Ray Erwin adores Pope Francis.

At the weekend, he counted down the hours to a historic papal mass in Abu Dhabi.

“We are very grateful,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “It’s a chance of a lifetime.”

Mr Erwin, 44, will be among 135,000 worshippers expected to gather tomorrow when “Lolo Kiko” (Grandpa Francisco), as the pontiff is affectionately known in the Philippines, holds a vast open-air mass in the Muslim-majority Arabian Peninsula.

The Pope’s three-day trip, which was due to start early today (Singapore time), is the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula – the birthplace of Islam.

While Muslims make up nearly four-fifths of the United Arab Emirates’ population, the country is also home to nearly a million Catholics, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.

Most are from India or the Philippines – like Mr Erwin, who has a wife and two daughters and has lived there for 20 years.

Migrants from Asian countries make up about 65 per cent of the population.

135,000

Number of worshippers expected to gather tomorrow when Pope Francis holds a vast open-air mass in Abu Dhabi. He is on a three-day trip to Arabian Peninsula.

Decked out with Vatican flags and a life-like picture of the Pope, St Mary’s Catholic Church in the neighbouring emirate of Dubai has been abuzz with worshippers preparing for the pontiff’s arrival.

The church, which can hold about 2,500 worshippers, was packed during mass last Friday.

People lined the walls inside while others stood in the open air to watch the sermon on two big screens.

Indian Irene Ann Tomi, 16, said the Pope’s visit would be “an eye opener for all the Christians and the Muslims in the UAE”.

“We are all human,” she said. “I believe we are connected by one thread, and that is faith.”

The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity.

It has eight Catholic churches, compared with four each in Oman, Kuwait and Yemen.

Qatar and Bahrain have one each, while ultra-conservative Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim places of worship.

The pontiff’s trip is widely seen as encouraging inter-religious dialogue in the region.

Pope Francis will take part in an interfaith conference today and will meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest seat of Islamic learning.

Early tomorrow morning local time, more than 2,000 free buses will transport worshippers from across the Emirates to Abu Dhabi, ahead of the mass scheduled for 10.30 am.

Before leaving Rome yesterday, the Pope called for urgent “respect” for a ceasefire accord in Yemen to allow humanitarian aid through in the conflict-weary country.

“I appeal to all parties concerned and to the international community to allow the urgent respect of established accords, to ensure the distribution of food and to work for the good of the population,” he said.

“The population is exhausted by the lengthy conflict and a great many children are suffering from hunger, but cannot access food depots.

“The cry of these children and their parents rises up to God.”

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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