ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AFP) — Abu Dhabi’s main stadium was a sea of yellow-and-white Vatican flags on Tuesday as Pope Francis arrived in warm sunlight to lead an open-air mass for tens of thousands of Catholics.
Over 135,000 worshipers, including from war-wracked Yemen, erupted in cheers as the pontiff was driven into the Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Standing in the back of a white Mercedes convertible with the hood down, the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula delivered blessings to those fortunate enough to secure tickets to the unprecedented open-air service.
He has used his visit to the United Arab Emirates to reach out to Muslims as well as highlighting Yemen’s devastating conflict, in which the UAE is a key player.
One member of the congregation held a large pink poster reading: “We the Catholics of Yemen love you.”
In the middle of the arena, a simple cross stood on an altar along with a statue of Mary carrying a baby Jesus.
“If I talk to you about this, I will cry,” said Lucy Watson, a 61-year-old Indian volunteer at the stadium.
“This is my faith, and Jesus is everything to me,” she told AFP.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the pope in my own eyes.”
‘Walked for hours’
Between 135,000 and 170,000 Christians from parishes across the UAE boarded 2,000 buses in the early hours of Tuesday morning to head to the capital Abu Dhabi, along streets lined with Vatican City and UAE flags.
By 8 a.m. (0400 GMT), worshipers of some 100 nationalities had filled the stadium.
Many families brought along children and the stadium thronged with people wearing white caps imprinted with the pope’s name and the date of his visit.
The UAE borders Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, but unlike its neighbor allows Christians to practice their faith discreetly.
The fervor was palpable among the congregation, which erupted into cheers and tears when the pope arrived.
“I came from Dubai. I left my house about midnight and went to the church” to get the bus, said Rosie McFadden, 27, from Scotland.
“Then (I) walked for about three hours when I got here,” she said.
“I know (people) who had a tough year last year, and I’m praying for them to have a good one this year.”
More than 85 percent of UAE residents are expatriates, including about a million Catholics — the vast majority of them from the Philippines and India.
Four thousand Muslims also attended the mass.
A handful of women in traditional black abayas could be seen carrying Vatican City flags as men in long white gowns walked to their seats.
‘Miracles can happen’
While the crowd was instructed not to carry banners or flags other than that of the Vatican, the Palestinian flag could be spotted near the Yemen poster.
At an interfaith meeting in Abu Dhabi on Monday, the pope called for an end to wars including in Yemen.
The UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting on the side of the government in the Arab world’s poorest country, battling Huthi rebels in a conflict that has pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation.
Pope Francis, the son of Italian immigrants and raised in Argentina, has also made caring for migrants and refugees a key focus of his papacy.
“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,” he told the vast congregation during in his sermon Tuesday.
“But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.”
His words hit home for many in Abu Dhabi.
“This is a big world leader, and he’s come for the peace,” said Patrick Pareira, a 58-year-old Indian citizen who has lived in the UAE for 38 years.
“This is a message of peace for all the world.”
Kaushala Fonseka, 25, from Sri Lanka, told AFP that “miracles can happen, that’s all I can say.”
Her father Gregory nodded and added: “Any time. They can happen any time.”