Pope Francis has landed in Abu Dhabi on the first papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.
The pontiff's Alitalia flight touched down in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms including Dubai, at about 9.30pm local time (5.30pm GMT) Sunday.
Diplomatic protocol is likely to dictate that Francis abandons many cncners during his visit and instead focuses on promoting interfaith dialogue and visiting Catholic peripheries.
The Emirates’ support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the UAE’s problematic record on human rights and labour violations at home, are likely to get a pass, at least in public.
However, Francis did appeal earlier Sunday for an end to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, saying the “cries of these children and their parents rise up” to God.
Pope Francis was greeted by Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
A young boy and girl in traditional Emirati dress handed the pontiff flowers and the two leaders then walked past a guard of honour, all with traditional Arabic daggers at their waists.
Pope Francis and Sheikh Mohammed smiled and spoke to each other as they walked through the airport terminal.
The pope also met a host of Cabinet ministers in a greeting line, as well as Catholic and Muslim officials.
Earlier on Sunday, Pope Francis called for the urgent observation of a limited ceasefire in Yemen reached in December and for food and medicine to get to its people, who are suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
He made the appeal at the Vatican before boarding a plane to the United Arab Emirates, which has been Saudi Arabia’s main ally in its war in Yemen — a way to avoid embarrassing his hosts with a public call while in the region.
“The people are exhausted by the long conflict and many children are hungry, but humanitarian aid isn’t accessible,” Francis said in his noontime Sunday blessing.
“The cries of these children and their parents rise up” to God.
Francis travelled to Abu Dhabi to take part in a conference on inter-religious dialogue sponsored by the Emirates-based Muslim Council of Elders, an initiative that seeks to counter religious fanaticism by promoting a moderate brand of Islam.
It is the brainchild of Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam that trains clerics and scholars from around the world.
In a video message to the Emirates on the eve of his trip, Francis paid homage to his “friend and dear brother” el-Tayeb and praised his courage in calling the meeting to assert that “God unites and doesn’t divide”.
In a statement Saturday, Al-Azhar described the coming meeting as “historic” and praised the “deeply fraternal relationship” between its imam and the pope, which it said even includes birthday greetings.
El-Tayeb also met Francis at the airport.
Francis and el-Tayeb are to address the Human Fraternity Meeting on Monday that has drawn not only Christian and Muslim representatives but hundreds of Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other Christian faith leaders.
Francis’s other main initiative in Abu Dhabi is a giant Mass on Tuesday in the city’s main sports arena that is expected to draw some 135,000 people in what some have called the largest show of public Christian worship on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Catholic Church believes there are some one million Catholics in the UAE.
Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families for work and can face precarious labour conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.