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Pope caps visit to Arabian Peninsula with historic Mass

Pope Francis blesses a boy during a Mass at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.  (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Pope Francis blesses a boy during a Mass at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The soft hymns of “Hallelujah” boomed from speakers Tuesday as Pope Francis celebrated the first papal Mass in the Arabian Peninsula for about 180,000 people, capping a visit to the United Arab Emirates that emphasized the presence of minority Christians in the region and a greater understanding with Islam.

It was considered to be the largest display of public worship by Christians on the peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. A large, golden-hued cross on an all-white stage provided a simple and profound backdrop.

The Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium, named for the founding father of the UAE, drew Catholics from 100 countries, including the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Uganda and Lebanon, reflecting the range of nationalities drawn to the Emirates’ promise of jobs, safety and tolerance.

Cheers erupted inside and outside the stadium when Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided pope mobile, with chants of “Viva il Papa” and “We love you!” Yellow and white Vatican flags decorated the stadium, and smaller versions were handed out to worshippers inside.

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said about 180,000 people attended, with 135,000 tickets distributed for spots inside and outside the stadium to throngs eager for a glimpse of the pope.

Also in attendance were about 4,000 Muslims — evidence of the enormous diversity and emphasis for interreligious tolerance that the UAE promotes among the country’s 9 million people.

In his homily, delivered in Italian and translated into Arabic with English subtitles on giant video screens, Francis spoke to the many migrant workers who endure years of separation from their families in order to send money home.

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