Tens of thousands of Catholics and several thousand Muslims attended an unprecedented public celebration of Mass on Tuesday by Pope Francis, the first pontiff in history to visit the Arabian Peninsula.

More than 120,000 worshippers packed Zayed Sports City stadium and its surroundings in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to see the pope, who is in the Gulf country to promote inter-faith dialogue.

The UAE hosts about half of the two million expatriate Catholics living on the peninsula, home to the birthplace of Islam in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The community includes large numbers of people from the Philippines and India.

“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, telling those gathered to draw inspiration from Saint Anthony the Abbot, the founder of monasticism in the desert.

“The Lord specializes in doing new things; he can even open paths in the desert,” he said at the end of a trip where he met with the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and UAE leaders.

Francis entered the stadium in a white open top jeep to roars from the crowd. People wearing white baseball caps emblazoned with the visit logo packed the stadium stands and snapped pictures on their smartphones.

Thousands of people cheering and waving Vatican flags lined the entrance to the stadium, with the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Abu Dhabi’s skyscrapers glinting in the distance.

“For me as a Christian, this is one of the most important days of my life,” said Thomas Tijo, a 44-year-old from India’s southern state of Kerala, who lives in the UAE and traveled by bus in the early hours to get to the stadium.

“We are a long way from home and this is like a comforting blanket,” he said, holding his three-year-old son, Marcus.

Organizers said Catholics from about 100 nations were expected to attend the Mass, along with about 4,000 Muslims, including government officials.

The pope, who arrived on Sunday at the invitation of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, has used the visit to condemn regional wars, including that in Yemen, the poorest country in the Peninsula, where the UAE is involved as part of a Saudi-led military coalition. He also called for greater cooperation between Christians and Muslims.

“The pope has made pleas for ending the Yemen war, greater tolerance and more,” said Lina Ghattas, a 48-year-old Egyptian who had traveled from Bahrain.

“I am not sure what will change: time will tell – hope, hope,” she said.

Source: ABU DHABI (Reuters)