to the UAE
A landmark moment for the Year of Tolerance
At 9.47pm on Sunday February 3, the Alitalia Shepherd One landed in Abu Dhabi under a rainy Emirati sky. This was the beginning of Pope Francis’s visit, and the first time a sitting pontiff has touched Arabian Peninsula soil.
“They told me it’s raining in Abu Dhabi,” Pope Francis told The National from the flight. “This, in some places, is seen as a blessing, let’s hope it goes this way.”
About one million Catholics live in the UAE, and in a video message before his visit, the Pope heralded the emirates as a “country which strives to be a model for co-existence and human fraternity and a meeting point of different civilisations and cultures”.
He was greeted at Abu Dhabi Presidential Airport by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, as well as Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Sharif University and Chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders.
The next day, Pope Francis held talks with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. They discussed enhancing co-operation, consolidating dialogue, tolerance, human coexistence and important initiatives to achieve peace, stability and development.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, described the papal visit as “an historic moment for religious freedom”.
St Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake, travelled to the Middle East in 1219 to meet Egyptian Sultan Malek Al Kamel during the fifth crusade. This meeting was a moment of mutual respect, and this was noted by the Pope in his Homily at the Abu Dhabi Mass.
“At that time, many people were setting out heavily armed, “ he said. Saint Francis pointed out that Christians set out armed only with their “humble faith and concrete love”. “Those who attack or overpower others are not blessed.” So important was this encounter that the Pope donated a relief, a form of sculpture that projects from but is part of a wall, depicting this meeting to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed during his visit.
The Arabic translator who is always by the Pope's side
During most of Pope Francis’s public engagements there is one man who is never far from his side. Monsignor Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, a Coptic Catholic priest, is the pontiff’s second personal secretary and is on hand to help with translations. Known for his welcoming smile and calming demeanour, Monsignor Lahzi Gaid speaks fluent Arabic, Italian, French and English.
In an interview with Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam in 2008, Monsignor Lahzi Gaid said: “I have always tried to be the friend who respects the different religion of the other without being afraid of speaking the truth.”
Monsignor Lahzi Gaid, 43, was born in Cairo and grew up with seven siblings. He was ordained at the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria, the coastal city west of Cairo, and then sent to Rome, where he earned a doctorate studying Eastern Christianity.
In 2007 he joined the diplomatic service of the Holy See, and he has been stationed across the globe, including in Congo, Gabon, Iraq, and Jordan. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him a chaplain, with the title Monsignor – an honorific form of address used by some members of the clergy.
In April 2014, the Pope asked that Monsignor Lahzi Gaid become his second personal secretary, a position that involves answering correspondence in the pontiff’s name. The monsignor has also acted as the prelate who gives the greetings in Arabic during general audiences at the Vatican on Wednesdays.
Monsignor Lahzi Gaid told The National that he regularly helped the Pope with translations from Arabic to Italian, and at Tuesday’s Mass, he translated the Italian words spoken by Pope Francis.
‘Build the future together, or there will be no future’
Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi’s Presidential Palace, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Founder’s Memorial – a day marked by discussions and statements of interfaith tolerance.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed stand with Pope Francis for the national anthem. Photo: Ministry of Presidential Affairs
A 21-gun salute and fly-by from aerobatics team Al Fursan marked the pontiff’s arrival at the palace, where he discussed enhancing cooperation and dialogue to achieve stability across the world with the UAE’s leaders.
After the visit, Pope Francis wrote a message in the Presidential Palace’s guestbook: “I invoke upon your highness and all the people of the United Arab Emirates, the divine blessings of peace and fraternal security.”
The military band performs at the welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis. AFP
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, presented the Pope with a leather and wood box containing a document issued on June 22, 1963, by the late Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, which granted a plot of land in Abu Dhabi to the Catholic Church.
Then, the pontiff visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for a private meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders. “They were of various cultures, this indicates the openness of this country to dialogue. They really are wise,” he said of the Council of Elders. And only through wisdom, he added, can friendship among people be born.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid walks with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar and Pope Francis. Photo: Ministry of Presidential Affairs
As dusk fell, Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, walked with Sheikh Mohammed toward the Founder’s Memorial, where they signed the Human Fraternity Document.
This blueprint for the future calls on people across the globe to unite to bring about interfaith harmony and spread a vital message of peace.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed watches the religious leaders sign the Human Fraternity Document. AFP
The document pledges to uphold many principles, including...
▶ That freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action.
▶ The protection of places of worship – mosques, churches and synagogues – is a duty guaranteed by religions, human values, laws and international agreements.
▶ Extremism is deplorable and threatens the security of people, be they in the East or the West, the North or the South, and disseminates panic, terror and pessimism, but this is not due to religion, even when extremists instrumentalise it. It is due, rather, to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression and pride.
▶ The concept of citizenship is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice. It is therefore crucial to establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities, which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority.
▶ Good relations between East and West are indisputably necessary for both. They must not be neglected, so that each can be enriched by the other’s culture, through fruitful exchange and dialogue.
▶ It is an essential requirement to recognise the right of women to education and employment, and to recognise their freedom to exercise their own political rights. Also, efforts must be made to free women from historical conditioning that runs contrary to the principles of their faith and dignity.
▶ The protection of the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a family environment, to receive nutrition, education and support, are duties of the family and society. Such duties must be guaranteed and protected, so that they are not overlooked or denied to any child in any part of the world.
▶ The protection of the rights of the elderly, the weak, the disabled, and the oppressed is a religious and social obligation that must be guaranteed and defended through strict legislation and the implementation of the relevant international agreements.
Pope Francis delivers a speech during the Founder's Memorial event in Abu Dhabi. AFP
While at the Founder’s Memorial, the Pope Francis delivered a speech in which he called for efforts to end the “miserable crudeness of war”. He warned that “we will either build the future together or there will be no future,” urging members of different faiths and cultures to join an ark of fraternity as one human family to secure peace.
Union in action
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, commemorated the visit of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar by ordering the construction of a building dedicated to interfaith harmony, an Abrahamic Family House.
Pope Francis with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb outside the Sehikh Zayed Grand Mosque. AFP
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, joined Sheikh Mohamed, Pope Francis, the Grand Imam, in signing the foundation stone for the institutions.
In the words of UAE resident Crispin Thomas, whose family is from Kerala, India: “Wise people build bridges and this is yet another bridge. I was born in Sharjah and there was always a church next to a mosque. We would go to church and hear the call to prayer. There are many links between the two religions, they both promote tolerance.”
‘He always ended conversations with his trademark smile’
His favourite dessert is dulce de leche and he has an air of serenity: these are some of the things Sofia Barbarini learnt as she toured with the Pope
Fifty-five years ago, in January 1964, Pope Paul VI inaugurated modern-day international Apostolic trips by becoming the first reigning pontiff to travel by airplane.
His destination? The Holy Land.
He was the first leader of the Catholic Church to visit Jordan and Israel. The trip coincided with a period of great turmoil and division inside the region, prompting him to champion important initiatives on behalf of the Palestinians. Over the next six years, the Italian pontiff would visit Muslim-majority countries on five occasions.
Almost six decades after Pope Paul VI’s historic pilgrimage, Pope Francis followed in his predecessor’s footsteps by embarking on a landmark journey to become the first Catholic pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula.
The three-day trip, thread together by themes of fraternity, coexistence and tolerance, proved an overall success. Journeying through a busy itinerary in a tiny black Kia Soul – the irony of the name was lost on no one – Pope Francis met with religious figures, heads of state and members of the country’s one-million-strong Catholic community.
The media coverage was wide and varied, with reporters spilling into Abu Dhabi to catch a glimpse of the first Pope to set foot in the UAE. Only a handful of media outlets from a number of different countries – including the United States, Germany and France – were granted access to the Pope’s flight and given a glimpse behind the scenes of an Apostolic trip. Eight were from the UAE, and The National was one of them.
Armed with a Canon 5D and a notepad, I embarked on the very short but critical journey. Over the space of three days, the hand-picked group of journalists followed the Argentine pontiff closely – starting in my hometown, Rome.
On the day of his departure, the 82-year-old pontiff stood at the Vatican window to deliver the weekly midday Angelus Address. “In less than an hour I’ll be leaving for a brief but important trip to the United Arab Emirates. Please, follow me with your prayers,” he told the crowd. Soon after 1pm, Pope Francis boarded the Shepherd One to begin his 27th Apostolic journey.
Inside the Alitalia jet, correspondents, photojournalists and cameramen hastily sought the best seats to set up shop. Over the next six hours, the unsuspecting Alitalia on-flight crew would witness a flurry of emotions. Shortly after the plane reached cruising altitude, Pope Francis made his entrance. The pontiff pulled back the grey curtain to greet journalists. But not before photobombing my video update.
Keen for my camera to capture the seconds preceding his arrival, my back was turned toward the front of the plane when the pontiff seemingly materialised out of nowhere. Luckily, I captured him on camera in a truly momentous photobomb.
Dressed in white and wearing a skullcap, Francis made his way down the aisle. Slowly but surely, the pontiff welcomed every member of the press, shaking hands, kissing cheeks and handing out blessings.
“Sofia Barbarani, from The National,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said as the pontiff turned to face me. With my grandmother’s voice still ringing in my ears – “Everyone shakes his hand these days, don’t forget you’re supposed to kiss it” – I took his hand and bowed my head lightly toward it.
Placing his hand atop mine and gesturing the sign of the cross, he blessed my rosary and accepted my gift, Adios Pampa Querida, an autobiographical book written by my father about his own family’s migration to Argentina. “What is your father’s name?” Pope Francis asked, perhaps wondering if he’d met him among the Italian diaspora in Buenos Aires, smiling when I told him, “Emilio”. The pontiff’s father, Mario Bergoglio, migrated to Argentina in 1929, during the rise to power of dictator Benito Mussolini.
Pope Francis has an air of serenity about him. His feathery white hair and kind eyes are reminiscent of a grandfather. He is easy to warm to and knows how to charm his interlocutor. He looked everyone in the eyes and always ended conversations with his trademark smile: Grazie, he’d say, and move on.
As a child raised in a Catholic household, the papal figure was an omnipresent one – starting with the late John Paul II, to Benedict XVI and the incumbent one.
Emotions ran high – feelings I’d have to suppress in favour of maintaining credibility among colleagues. So it was that I buckled up and began writing my first dispatch from the sky – “Pope Francis en route to UAE for first Gulf visit”.
At 10pm on Sunday, Shepherd One landed in Abu Dhabi. Outside of the plane, the wet runway glistened under the lights of the Presidential Airport – rain and thunder had taken UAE residents by surprise that day.
Tired but too abuzz with emotion, I stayed up until 2.30am and planned for the following day. By 8am on Monday, The St Regis media centre was alive with animated members of the media co-ordinating with their respective teams. On one table, journalists from the Emirates News Agency, Wam, talked, while on others, lone journalists skimmed through the news or put in calls to editors in the Americas. Cameramen and photographers inspected their equipment, cleaning lenses, fixing settings.
The Pope’s itinerary was packed on his first and only full day in Abu Dhabi; while the official meetings were meticulously planned and beautifully executed, it was Tuesday’s Mass that truly stole the show. The largest gathering of Christians in the Arab Peninsula to date.
Just hours before he was scheduled to fly back to the Vatican, Pope Francis addressed 150,000 faithful from 100 different countries in Zayed Sports City Stadium. In an indication of the diversity of the Catholic flock, the prayers during Mass were read out in a variety of languages and addressed the variety of hardships faced.
The exuberance was palpable. Under a crisp blue winter sky, people from all walks of life streamed into the stadium in white T-shirts and caps, with the Vatican emblem printed on them. Many hadn’t slept, catching government-run overnight buses from neighbouring emirates just to get a glimpse of the pontiff. Some cried, clutching programmes and waving yellow Vatican flags. Others kicked-off Mexican waves, chanting: “Viva il Papa” and “We love you Pope Francis!”
The chants turned into a collective roar of happiness as Pope Francis arrived in the white open popemobile, looping through the crowd of followers. One young girl pushed through security and ran to the Pope to hand him a letter.
I empathised with them, tempted to join in the joyful racket and moved to tears by the Pope’s words and the beautiful choir. In his homily, delivered in Italian and translated into Arabic with English subtitles on giant screens, Francis made a direct reference to the sufferings many endure.
“It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future,” he said. “But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.” Some 45 minutes before the end of Mass, the press were escorted to the Presidential Airport, where we waited for Pope Francis.
I couldn’t help but think how beautiful it would have been if, like myself, every follower in the stadium were given the chance to meet the pontiff.
On the flight back to Rome, I gained insight into catering for an Argentine Pope: “This is a cream puff filled with dulce de leche,” a young stewardess told me in a strong Argentinian Spanish. She was one of three Argentinian members of the flight crew that evening. Dulce de leche – a typically Argentine version of caramel – is the Pope’s favourite, one of the journalists said.
Before long the Pope had arrived. Soon after takeoff, Francis joined the media for the customary press conference. Seated in the front row, with a metre separating the Holy Father and myself, I asked him about the young girl who had breached security to reach him.
At first, he appeared confused, perhaps expecting another question about politics. His spokesman leaned in to the pontiff’s ear and quietly explained – a spark lit in his eyes and he smiled. “She was courageous!” he exclaimed, laughter rippling through the aircraft.
Francis took questions for some 45 minutes and while he gave detailed answers, the pontiff was visibly tired. Perhaps it was the grueling itinerary, or maybe the ongoing and relentless criticism by conservative members of the Church for his reforms. Either way, Pope Francis appeared at times melancholic and sad. Yet, anyone with the strength and stubbornness to steer the Church away from centuries-old traditions is unquestionably a tough person.
While the absence of invasive flight announcements was welcome, the dizzying commotion of almost 70 journalists in one plane trying to file copy, images and video made for no rest. Some veteran Vatican correspondents, however, could be spotted napping.
We touched down in Rome just after 4pm, exhausted but content. And as I made my way from Ciampino airport into Rome, snaking through old country lanes and passing centuries-old monuments, I thought back to Pope Paul VI, and his landmark journey all those years ago.
Like Francis, Paul VI was often met with psychological resistance for wanting to move forward with the times, and for not wanting to stagnate. He was also a great believer in peaceful co-existence, like the incumbent pontiff. “No more war! Never again war! If you wish to be brothers, drop your weapons,” Paul VI said in a famous address to the United Nations in 1965.
Francis echoed those sentiments when speaking in Abu Dhabi more than five decades later: “War cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death. Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”
For many, the journey began well before the day dawned
Many began their journey to see Pope Francis’s Mass at 10pm the day before, with hundreds of yellow school buses transporting the faithful from Dubai and the Northern Emirates safely to the capital. Like many of her Filipino compatriots, who made up the majority of the travelling masses, Maizel Joi was overwhelmed with anticipation.
“We are all so excited,” she said as she queued at Safa Park with three of her colleagues from the Four Points by Sheraton hotel.
“It has been a long day, but totally worth it,” said her friend and colleague, Jeffrey Agunos, who was hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis from outside the stadium. An operation performed with military efficiency played out from six separate collection points across the city, with 400 buses leaving Safa Park in the space of just a few hours.
Then, it was barely past breakfast when Pope Francis carried out his first engagement, a short five-minute drive from Mushrif Palace, where he has stayed for his three days in the UAE, to St Joseph’s Cathedral, the first Catholic church to open in 1965. Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, then Ruler of Abu Dhabi, donated the land for it and was present at the inauguration.
Inside, the Pope greeted the congregation as a choir sung. There were blessings for men, women and children (left), some calling out expressions of love and kissing the Pope’s hand.
Ten kilometres away from the church, stands were already filling up at Zayed Sports City for the Mass.
Outdoor screens had been set up for those who did not have tickets, and it was these people who witnessed the arrival of the Pope first (below), with cheers that rolled towards the stadium and with thousands of yellow and white papal flags that reflected the sun against a clear blue sky.
From a Kia to a Mercedes: The Popemobiles seen in the UAE
Pope Francis was driven around the nation’s capital in three different vehicles.
He chose a simple white van as he arrived at Abu Dhabi Presidential Airport with Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, while the majority of his time on the road was spent in a humble Kia Soul. This wasn’t the first time the Pope had been driven in a Kia Soul: he also employed the car, which is the second-smallest in Kia’s fleet, in both Seoul, South Korea and Entebbe, Uganda.
However, the most UAE moment came when the pontiff drove toward the Mass at Zayed Sports City, in a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. The Pope is regularly seen in a Hyundai, as well as a Ford Focus and a Fiat Panda, but he swapped practicality for style this time around.
The custom-designed G-Wagen, which sports a gold Vatican City seal, was open to the elements, perfect for Abu Dhabi’s clear sunny skies, and allowing a clear view of the Catholic leader for his followers.
The licence plate on the car was SVC 1, or Status Civitatis Vaticanae, which is the Latin name for the Vatican City. Mercedes-Benz has been making Popemobiles since 1930, when Pope Pius received a Nurburg 460 as a present.
In 1980, it developed the first Popemobile, complete with a bulletproof box. It later created an open-top version, which it equipped with hand rails.
He was met by a sea of flags and shouts of 'Papa'
The Pope's first words were... ‘peace be with you’
Extracts from the Pope’s Homily...
“You are a choir composed of numerous nations, languages and rites; a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonise ever more, in order to make a symphony. This joyful polyphony of faith is a witness that you give everyone and that builds up the Church.”
“It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future. But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”
“Dear brothers and sisters, I want to tell you that living out the Beatitudes does not require dramatic gestures. Look at Jesus: he left nothing written, built nothing imposing. And when he told us how to live, he did not ask us to build great works or draw attention to ourselves with extraordinary gestures. He asked us to produce just one work of art, possible for everyone: our own life.”
“The Beatitudes are not for supermen, but for those who face up to the challenges and trials of each day. Those who live out the Beatitudes according to Jesus are able to cleanse the world. They are like a tree that even in the wasteland absorbs polluted air each day and gives back oxygen. It is my hope that you will be like this, rooted in Jesus and ready to do good to those around you. May your communities be oases of peace.”
'I saw a modern country, welcoming of so many'
These were Pope Francis’s words on Tuesday as he left the UAE on an Etihad Boeing 787 Dreamliner. He sat with reporters on the trip to Rome – captained by Emirati pilot Abdulla Obaid – and told them how the country’s focus on the future impressed him.
“They educate their children by looking forward,” the pontiff said of the UAE. “They are always looking for new things. I even heard someone say: ‘One day we’ll cease to have oil, we’re readying ourselves for that day’.”
The Etihad plane that Pope Francis flew on was a standard 787 with a few small changes, including the addition of the Vatican logo on the aircraft’s door and headrests.
“During the flight we don’t make any announcements or keep disturbing the passengers,” said Obaid. “If there is anything we need to advise them of, we will tell them through the crew.”
During the six-hour journey, Pope Francis, 82, addressed some of the serious problems plaguing the region. “There’s only one great danger at the moment – destruction, war, hate among us,” he said. “And if we’re unable, among believers, to give each other a hand … our faith will be defeated.”
Pope Francis’s next journey abroad will be to Morocco on March 30. It will be the second time a pontiff has visited the North African country, after John Paul II went there in 1985.
Writing: Sofia Barbarani
Editing: Dan Gledhill; Nyree McFarlane
Producer: Simon Wilgress-Pipe
Picture editor: Jake Badger
Video: Karma Gurung
Graphics: Ramon Peñas Jr
Photographs: The National; Getty; AFP; Reuters; AP; Ministry of Presidential Affairs
Copyright: The National, Abu Dhabi 2019 , in association with Adnoc