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Pope Francis Makes Historic Visit To United Arab Emirates


Pope Francis is making history this week. He is on a landmark visit to the United Arab Emirates. It's the first-ever visit by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula. He's going to take part in an interfaith conference, and tomorrow he will hold Mass. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope and joins us on the line from Abu Dhabi. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why did Pope Francis decide to make this historic trip?

POGGIOLI: Well, because the UAE officials invited him to attend a big interfaith meeting that will take place later today here in Abu Dhabi. It's sponsored by what's called the Muslim Council of Elders. It's an initiative aimed at countering religious fanaticism and promoting a moderate form of Islam. The man behind this is Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. That's the most important center of learning for Sunni Islam. Pope Francis has met him already several times, and they've established a very good relationship. The pope referred to him the other day as a friend and a dear brother.

Now, Catholic-Muslim relations were frozen in 2006 after Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, quoted a Byzantine emperor who linked Islam with violence. And that speech led to violent actions against Catholics in Muslim countries. It was a big blow to Christian-Muslim dialogue. So today's encounter is seen as another milestone in much, much improved relations.

MARTIN: So how is the pope going to use this moment? I mean, we mentioned he's going to hold Mass. What's the message?

POGGIOLI: Well, the Mass will be tomorrow, and that's being touted already as going to be the biggest public display of Christian worship in the Arabian Peninsula. The UAE has declared 2019 the year of tolerance. It's making a big push to show itself to be a land of inclusion. Only one million of its 9 million citizens are actually Emirati. The rest are foreigners, and close to a million of those are Catholics. But there are even - Islam is the official religion. The Sharia law prevails, and freedom of worship has a lot of restrictions. For instance, no church bells. There are no church bells. Crosses can't be seen in public, and conversion from Islam is a crime punishable by death.

So it'll be very interesting to see if either in public or private, the pope will call for greater religious freedom and for better protection for non-citizens 'cause this is a country that's also been criticized for its very poor human rights record.

MARTIN: Right.

POGGIOLI: So it'll be an important encounter for Francis also with Catholics in what he calls the peripheries of the world. It's a new, diverse global Catholicism, many different languages, many cultures. And this is an area where those people, that community, is growing at the same time that long-established Christian communities in the Middle East are dwindling.

MARTIN: So the UAE is also involved in the Saudi war in Yemen. Pope Francis has condemned that war, called it a humanitarian crisis, which it is. Is he likely to have any idea whether he's going to broach this?

POGGIOLI: He probably will because he actually spoke about Yemen yesterday, just before he left Rome, in his Sunday message. And they were really the most forceful remarks he's made yet on the war. He urged all sides to implement the fragile peace deal that was reached in December and to help deliver aid to millions of people who are suffering. He spoke a great deal about the agony of children in this country, in Yemen. And his words were welcomed here by the foreign minister, who said, let's make 2019 the year of peace. So I think it's very likely he will raise his concerns about Yemen while he's here.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli traveling with Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Sylvia, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.