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Pope Francis arrives in the United Arab Emirates tomorrow. He'll be the first pope to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that he'll visit Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, for an international interfaith event. He'll also celebrate an outdoor mass for Catholics, most of whom are migrant workers from other countries.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In a video message to the UAE, Pope Francis says his visit will help write a new page in Muslim-Catholic relations.
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POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Faith in God unites, and it does not divide. It draws us closer despite differences. It distances us from hostilities and aversion.
POGGIOLI: The oil-rich federation of seven emirates borders Saudi Arabia, which administers the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and bans observance of all religions but Islam. The UAE prides itself on granting slightly more religious freedom to its close to one million Catholics, mostly Filipinos and Indians. But for non-Muslims, it's illegal to proselytize there, and blasphemy and apostasy laws carry possible death sentences. In an off-the-record briefing, a Vatican official said Catholics in the UAE protect themselves by keeping a low profile. In a video message, Bishop Paul Hinder, the region's top Catholic official, urged Catholics to pray for the rulers who invited the pope.
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PAUL HINDER: I thank the UAE government for their generosity. Not only have they made the visit possible but have wholeheartedly given us a venue to celebrate mass.
POGGIOLI: Setting a milestone in the region, the mass will be celebrated outdoors at the Zayed Sports City Stadium where 130,000 are expected. That flock belongs to those Catholic churches on what Francis calls the peripheries of the world that he has made a central part of his pastoral care.
MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: Many of them are Catholic churches that work without priests because they don't have them.
POGGIOLI: Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University, says, over Skype, that a key aspect of the visit will be how Francis relates.
FAGGIOLI: With these very new and interesting and mysterious in some sense way of being Catholic - migrant Catholic from Asia to the Middle East.
POGGIOLI: Faggioli says this will give the pope a glimpse into what the Catholic Church might look like in years to come.
FAGGIOLI: This is not just the pope exploring the Arabian Peninsula but also exploring global Catholicism in the most unexpected and unbelievable places for the future of the Catholic Church.
POGGIOLI: Francis will also attend an interfaith meeting with Ahmed Al Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar, a key center of learning for Sunni Islam with whom he has good relations.
But some Middle East experts are uneasy about a papal visit to a country that's fighting in Yemen in coalition with Saudi Arabia. A U.N. report last August alleged that the Saudi-Emirati coalition had killed thousands of civilians, tortured POWs and used child soldiers in what could be war crimes under international law.
Francis is scheduled to speak publicly twice during the visit at the interreligious event Monday and at the mass on Tuesday. There are high expectations that the pope will, as he has in the past, address the human tragedy underway in Yemen. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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