by Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) – Pope Francis will visit the United Arab Emirates Feb. 3-5 of next year, the Vatican announced on Thursday, in response to an invitation from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
The pope will visit the city of Abu Dhabi to participate in the International Interfaith Meeting on “Human Fraternity,” said the statement, signed by American Greg Burke, the Vatican’s spokesman, who added that Francis had also been invited by the local Catholic church.
The United Arab Emirates is a sovereign absolute monarchy that includes seven emirates: Abu Dhabi (which serves as the capital), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.
It’s located in Western Asia, at the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf, bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia. As of 2013, the country had an estimated population of 9.2 million, of which 1.4 million are Emirati citizens and 7.8 million are expatriates.
Islam is the largest and the official state religion of the UAE. The government follows a policy of tolerance toward other religions and rarely interferes in the activities of non-Muslims. However, there are restrictions on spreading other religions through any form of media as it is considered proselytizing.
Christians amount to an estimated 13 percent of the total population, including Catholics, Protestants, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox. According to Open Doors International, a watchdog group that tracks the situation of Christians around the world, the level of persecution is high, particularly when it comes to converts to Christianity from Islam, “and they experience a great deal of pressure to recant their faith, both from their immediate families and society as a whole.”
“While the government technically promotes religious tolerance, its promotion of Islam contributes to Christian persecution,” says the fact sheet from Open Doors.
According to the Vatican statement, the theme of the pope’s visit, taken from the opening words of the Prayer of Peace of St. Francis of Assisi, “expresses our own prayer that the visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates may spread in a special way the peace of God within the hearts of all people of good will.”
“This visit, like the one to Egypt [in 2017], shows the fundamental importance the Holy Father gives to inter-religious dialogue. Pope Francis visiting the Arab world is a perfect example of the culture of encounter,” Burke said.
The logo of the visit is a dove bearing an olive branch, and displaying both the white and yellow of the Vatican’s flag and the red, green and black of the United Arab Emirates, “symbolizing the visit of the Pope to the country as a herald of peace.”
This will be Pope Francis’s second trip in 2018, as he’s already scheduled to go to Panama in January to participate in World Youth Day. It’ll be the first visit by a pope to the the United Arab Emirates, but it’s in line with the Argentine pontiff’s inter-religious outreach.