Pope Francis, who has made boosting ties between Christianity and Islam a cornerstone of his papacy, will visit Abu Dhabi in February, the Vatican said Thursday, becoming the first ever pope to visit the Arabian peninsula.
The pontiff, who turns 82 on December 17, has already visited several Muslim countries, including Turkey in 2014, Azerbaijan in 2016 and Egypt in 2017. He is scheduled to visit Morocco in March.
The pontiff was invited to the majority-Muslim country by both Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and the local Catholic church.
"The UAE is delighted to welcome His Holiness Pope Francis on the upcoming visit to the UAE," tweeted the prince, who met Francis at the Vatican in 2016.
"He is a symbol of peace, tolerance and the promotion of brotherhood. We look forward to a historic visit, through which we will seek dialogue on the peaceful coexistence among peoples," he said.
Francis will take part in an international "interfaith" meeting during the trip, which will run from February 3 to 5.
– 'Culture of encounter' –
The Vatican said the theme for the Abu Dhabi trip was summed up in the phrase "make me a channel of your peace" — a quote from Saint Francis of Assisi, the pope's namesake.
The hope was the visit would "spread in a special way the peace of God within the hearts of all people of good will," it said.
Nearly 80 percent of the population of the UAE is Muslim, while Christians constitute around nine percent
GIUSEPPE CACACE, AFP/File
"This visit, like the one to Egypt, shows the fundamental importance the Holy Father gives to inter-religious dialogue," spokesman Greg Burke said.
"Pope Francis visiting the Arab world is a perfect example of the culture of encounter," he added.
Bishop Paul Hinder of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which encompasses UAE, Oman and Yemen, said: "The generosity of the UAE government has also been extended in making it possible to celebrate a Mass, which will be on February 5 at a public venue in Abu Dhabi. These are warm and kind gestures that we appreciate and acknowledge."
The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity, and most Gulf Arab states have long allowed Christians to worship in churches.
Nearly 80 percent of the population of the UAE is Muslim, while Christians constitute around nine percent, according to the Catholic News Agency.
Many of the Catholics are workers from Africa, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, though some are locals.
– 'Strengthen ties' –
The pope's visit "will strengthen our ties and understanding of each other," UAE's Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum said on Twitter.
Francis will make the journey just a week after returning from Panama, where he will take part in the World Youth Day rally. The tireless pontiff will then head off to Morocco.
Pope Francis moved quickly after his election in 2013 to make overtures to Jews and Muslims, inviting two old friends from Buenos Aires — a rabbi and a Muslim professor — on a trip to the Middle East where he condemned religious hatred.
But the Catholic church has found it harder to bridge differences with Islam than with Judaism.
Benedict XVI angered the Muslim world with a speech in 2006 in which he appeared to endorse the view that Islam is inherently violent, sparking deadly protests in several countries as well as attacks on Christians.
Since then the Vatican's pontifical council for inter-religious dialogue has been working overtime to mend fences with moderate Islam.