Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates has begun with pomp and ceremony at the presidential palace where he was received by the crown prince.
The pontiff received a red-carpet welcome from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi as guards on horseback escorted his tiny Kia car on its approach to the dome building where a marching band played.
Cannon boomed and a military flypast was also staged trailing yellow and white smoke during a lavish ceremony to officially kick-start the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.
Pope Francis signed a book of honour in which he wrote of his “gratitude for your warm welcome and hospitality” and assured the people of the UAE of his prayers and “the divine blessings of peace and fraternal solidarity”.
The crown prince posted images of the pontiff at the palace on Twitter and wrote he was “delighted” to meet Pope Francis “in our homeland of tolerance”.
“We discussed enhancing cooperation, consolidating dialogue, tolerance, human coexistence and important initiatives to achieve peace, stability and development for peoples and societies,” he tweeted.
The papal visit comes as the UAE faces criticism as Saudi Arabia’s main ally in its war in Yemen, where the conflict has left half the country’s population on the brink of starvation.
As the crown prince and the pope held talks, Human Rights Watch urged the pontiff to use his 40-hour visit to the UAE to press its rulers “to investigate alleged serious violations by its armed forces and Yemeni forces it supports, to appropriately prosecute those responsible for war crimes, and to provide reparation to victims of violations”.
The organisation said in a letter to the Argentinian that “despite its assertions about tolerance, the UAE government has demonstrated no real interest in improving its human rights record”.
Later, the pope held a private meeting with a group of Muslim elders at Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
The highlight of the visit will see the leader of the Catholic Church hold a giant mass in the capital’s main sports arena Zayed Sports City tomorrow, which is expected to be attended by around 135,000 people.
Some have said it will be the largest-ever show of Christian worship on the Arabian Peninsula.
Before leaving for Abu Dhabi on Sunday, the pontiff called for a ceasefire in Yemen and for food and medicine to get to its people.
“The cries of these children and their parents rise up” to God, he said from the Vatican before flying from Rome to the Emirati capital.
(c) Sky News 2019: UAE greets Pope Francis with lavish ceremony in Abu Dhabi