Pope Francis holds historic mass of over 170,000 people in Abu Dhabi

Pope Francis leads mass for an estimated 170,000 Catholics at the Zayed Sports City Stadium on February 5, 2019. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

Pope Francis held a historic public mass for an estimated 170,000 Catholics at a stadium in the capital of the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, capping the first ever papal visit to the Gulf, a region where Islam was born.

The pontiff waved at the enthusiastic crowd carrying yellow Vatican flags and banners as he rode in an open-top Popemobile into Zayed Sports City Stadium, where an altar with a large cross was set up for the unprecedented open-air service in a country that normally restricts worship to inside churches.

The UAE borders Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, but unlike its larger neighbour, which outlaws all non-Muslim places of worship, Abu Dhabi allows Christians among its large migrant workforce to practise their faith discreetly.

Francis, who has made outreach to Muslim communities a cornerstone of his papacy, wrapped up his historic three-day visit with the mass.

In a homily on Tuesday, he turned to the tens of thousands of migrant workers living in the Emirates.

“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,” the pope said.

“But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”

Aboard the papal plane on his way back to Rome, he hailed the visit as a “step forward” in dialogue with Islam, a relationship that must still “ripen like fruit”.

More than 135,000

Filipino and Indian Catholics among the UAE’s huge migrant workforce have warmly welcomed Pope Francis’ trip.

About one million Catholics live in the country, or about one in 10 of UAE residents.

Asian nationals make up some 65 per cent of the population and are crucial to all sectors in the oil-rich Gulf state, from construction to services and hotels.