ABU DHABI — Sarika Yaqoob and her family left Dubai at midnight to arrive in Abu Dhabi at 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday, the day Pope Francis would deliver a historic mass during what was the first-ever visit by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula.
“We’ve been here since 3 a.m., we were walking all the way,” Yaqoob told CNBC at the edge of Zayed Sports City Stadium, where more than 140,000 attendees had gathered for the mass both inside and outside the venue.
Because of blocked roads, her family parked their car some six miles from the stadium and walked. But they aren’t tired, she said, her voice brimming with anticipation. “We are not tired, we are very excited, really energetic … our legs are aching, but it’s something you get to witness once in a lifetime. This is something that is very exciting.”
Yaqoob, whose family hails from Pakistan, is one of the estimated 1 million Catholics living in the United Arab Emirates. The invitation by the UAE government of Pope Francis has drawn attention to the comparative religious freedom enjoyed by its residents, who span more than 200 nationalities, in a region that’s better known for strict Islamic conservatism.
“I never thought I would see this, because it’s a Muslim country,” one attendee, a Filipina resident of Dubai for the past nine years, told CNBC from the stadium stands. “It is so nice … I cannot explain it.”
“This is a very, very big blessing to see him in Abu Dhabi, and was a lifetime experience for us,” said 23-year-old Joshua Sebastian, a Catholic from Kerala, India. “It’s a big deal to see him here in UAE, I’ve only seen him on the internet and videos on Youtube. But seeing him in a close vicinity was like … I have no words for that.”
25-year-old John Bruce, another Kerala native, echoed his friend’s disbelief. “I never expected I could see (the pope) in my lifetime. It’s like a dream come true.”
The three-day visit by Pope Francis, which began on Sunday with a welcome by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the emirate’s presidential palace, is a part of the government’s designation of 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance.” Residents at Tuesday’s mass praised the country’s initiative.
“That we get to witness something like this in the UAE, the first time a pope is coming to the Arabian Peninsula, that shows tolerance, and we are experiencing it now,” said Saroosh William, a Pakistani-born lifelong resident of Dubai, noting the free tickets and transport for the event.
“It shows a good sign between two different faiths, that they are actually being very generous to each other.”
Emirati leaders praised the pope ahead of his hour-and-a-half long mass, which was delivered in a combination of Arabic, English and Latin. The stadium was awash with spectators waving white and yellow Vatican flags, who later took communion from volunteers distributing sacramental bread among the stands.
Religious freedom in the UAE
While it’s a Muslim country that implements Islamic law in many aspects of its governance, the UAE hosts numerous churches and Hindu temples, and authorities have even recognized a house-turned-synagogue. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, by contrast, forbids the building of churches or any non-Muslim religious establishments.
But critics and rights groups point to severe restrictions that remain in the UAE on religious freedom — attempting to convert Muslims to any other religion is a crime, and converting out of Islam is punishable by death.
The pope on Monday took part in a multi-religious conference sponsored by the UAE-based Muslim Council of Elders, an organization aimed at promoting a moderate brand of Islam to counter religious extremism.
The initiative was created by Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which is a thousand-year-old center of Muslim scholarship and clerical training considered one of the holiest seats of Sunni Islam.
El-Tayeb greeted Francis with an embrace on his arrival in Abu Dhabi. The two later signed the “Human Fraternity Document,” described as a blueprint for future generations to pursue interfaith dialogue, gender and religious equality, tolerance, and peace.
Human rights and foreign policy criticism
The pope called for an end to the Middle East’s wars, and before leaving the Vatican on Sunday, issued an impassioned call for an end to the conflict in Yemen, which has taken tens of thousands of lives and in which the UAE has played a leading role.
Critics of the Emirati government say the country’s foreign policy, which often follows that of Saudi Arabia, has only worsened civilian deaths and destabilization in the region. The UAE holds that it is fending off aggression from regional rival Iran and supporting Yemen’s president, who was ousted when Houthi rebels overran the capital Sanaa in 2014.
Rights groups also have demanded greater accountability for UAE leaders, who they say are responsible for repression of free speech and the unjust detention of scores of activists and government critics. Amnesty International called on the pope to raise the issue of incarceration with his hosts, but no mention of the issue was made, at least publicly. Spokespersons for the UAE ministry of justice and Abu Dhabi judicial department did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.
Christians, ‘our friends and brothers’
Jasem Alblooshi, an Emirati Muslim working as security for the mass, expressed pride in the historic milestone he believed his country had accomplished.
“I’m very happy, because you see that all religions are in one place, especially all our friends and brothers, Christians, they are here and they have the opportunity to see the pope — because we know it’s very hard for them to see him in the Vatican or elsewhere so we bring him here so they can see it.”
“It’s such an amazing experience, right? That regardless of any religion we can be united,” said Christopher Hilis, a 27-year-old Filipino on his third year living in Dubai. “And that’s the essence of him coming here. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. You don’t get to experience that in a Muslim country, it was not really possible before, but now it’s happening.”