ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis has become the first pontiff to deliver mass in the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. The mass, delivered in front of some 135,000 attendees at Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, comes as a highlight of the pope’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates.
The ceremony began inside the stadium, as a large crucifix, a rare sight in an Arab Gulf state, loomed above the makeshift steeple.
Anticipation for the mass, the pope’s largest single event during his visit to the region, has built steadily in recent days. On Tuesday morning, crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the the pontiff as he made his way to the stadium in his specially designed “popemobile.”
Pope Francis kicked off his visit to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, arriving at Abu Dhabi’s lavish presidential palace in his trademark understated Kia Soul hatchback.
The small black car — a notable choice in a kingdom known for its gold-plated lifestyle — was flanked by cavalry as it wound its way toward the palace. He was greeted with an artillery salute and aircraft trailing yellow and white smoke through the sky in honor of the Vatican flag.
On Monday afternoon, he gave his first public speech at a meeting with Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders at the city’s Founder’s Memorial center.
The Pontiff called on the world’s religious leaders to reject war, mentioning the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.
“Let us commit ourselves against the logic of armed power,” Francis said. He also warned against the “raising of walls,” in what could be seen as a reference to President Donald Trump’s pledged border wall with Mexico.
In a wide-ranging speech, the Pope also mentioned the sexual abuse scandal which has embroiled the Catholic Church for decades, praising a November meeting held in Abu Dhabi on child dignity in the digital world.
In a handwritten message in the palace’s Book of Honor, the Pope thanked his hosts for their “warm welcome” and invoked “divine blessings of peace” on the people of the UAE.
The Crown Prince, in turn, gifted the Pope the act of notary dating back to June 22, 1963, for a donation of land to build the first church in the UAE.
The Pope’s meeting with palace officials comes at a delicate political time for the UAE, which is involved in a coalition with Saudi Arabia in a war in Yemen.
While it is unknown whether Francis discussed the topic with the Crown Prince during their private meeting, the Pope did issue a public plea for peace in Yemen from the Vatican on Sunday, just an hour before his departure for Abu Dhabi.
In off-the-cuff remarks not included in his prepared speech, the Pope said: “Let us pray loudly because there are children that are hungry, are thirsty, don’t have medicine and their lives are in danger.”
In response, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said in a tweet that he “welcomed” the pontiff’s prayers, calling on 2019 to be “the year of peace” in Yemen.