Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi for Interfaith Conference

Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi for Interfaith Conference

Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi for Interfaith Conference

BBC Arabic's Murad Batal Shishani, who is in Abu Dhabi, says the Vatican hopes that the Pope's visit might loosen restrictions on the building of churches in the region, particularly in neighbouring Saudi Arabia where non-Muslim places of worship are forbidden.

The prince is an ally of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has reached out to Christian representatives overseas as part of attempts to open up the conservative kingdom. The UAE has a sizeable Roman Catholic population and Pope Francis has referred to the country as a model of co-existence, a cause he has championed throughout his nearly six-year papacy.

Shortly afterwards Francis departed for Abu Dhabi, where he will be a guest of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

The pontiff will take part in an interreligious conference on Monday with Sheikh Ahmed.

Some have been queuing for passes for Tuesday's Mass.

Before heading to the Gulf, the pontiff urged warring parties in Yemen, where the UAE backs the government against Huthi rebels, to respect a truce agreement.

"I appeal to the interested parties and to the global community to urgently encourage compliance with the agreements reached, to ensure the distribution of food and to work for the good of the population".

"The population [in Yemen] is exhausted by the lengthy conflict and a great many children are suffering from hunger, but can not access food depots", the Pope said.

"The cries of these children and their parents rise up" to God, he said from the Vatican before heading to Rome's airport for his flight.

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The Holy Father's arrival marks the very first time a Pope has set foot on the Arabian Peninsula.

The UAE is home to almost a million Roman Catholics, majority from the Philippines or India.

Francis' 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.

On Sunday morning, hundreds of Catholics queued in drizzling rain outside St. Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi to get their passes. One told AFP news agency the Pope's visit "opens doors for conversations about tolerance that the whole world needs to hear".

The UAE welcomed the Pope's message on Yemen and believes the peace deal he referred to was a historic breakthrough, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter.

Gargash pointed out the difference "between those hosting a cleric of violence and terrorism... and those who host the pope and the Al-Azhar sheikh for a dialogue of love and communication".

Four Arab nations - Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - have been boycotting Qatar since June 2017 as part of a regional political dispute.

In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims pray in secret gatherings in private homes and embassies.

Millions of Yemenis face imminent starvation, according to the UN.

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