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Pope Francis to embark on historic visit to UAE

Pope Francis will arrive in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) later on Sunday, becoming the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula.

The Pope has been invited by Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to take part in an interfaith conference.

The landmark trip will also feature a Mass on Tuesday that is expected to draw 120,000 people.

The visit will be carefully watched for any references to the war in Yemen.

Pope Francis has condemned the conflict, in which the UAE is involved as part of a Saudi-led coalition.

Last year, the pontiff appealed to the international community "to avoid a worsening of the already tragic humanitarian situation" in Yemen.

The UAE is also home to nearly one million Roman Catholics, most of them from the Philippines or India.

In a video message on Thursday, the Pope said: "I am happy for this occasion the Lord has given me to write, on your dear land, a new page in the history of relations between religions.

"Faith in God unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion."

He paid tribute to the UAE as "a land that is trying to be a model of coexistence, of human brotherhood, and a meeting place among diverse civilisations and cultures".

While in Abu Dhabi, the Pope will also meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque which is the highest seat of learning for Sunni Muslims.

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.

Vatican officials say they need a stronger Church presence in the UAE to minister to the Catholic community there.

"We are really stretched. We need more churches. We need more priests," one official, quoted by Reuters, said.

Source: National News Agency

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