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Pope Francis Ends Historic Trip To The United Arab Emirates With Papal Mass


Pope Francis ended a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates with a papal mass, the first ever in the Arabian Peninsula.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: The service in Abu Dhabi drew nearly 200,000 people, mostly Catholics who have moved to the region for work. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli was there and joins us now. Hi Sylvia,


SHAPIRO: Paint a picture for us. What was this enormous mass in a majority Muslim country like?

POGGIOLI: Oh, it was quite amazing. There was an incredibly exuberant crowd when the pope came into the stadium on his popemobile. It was just - everybody exploded. The crowd then followed his words very closely. They were subtitled on video screens around the stadium. They were very moved. Some people wept openly. It was an intense emotional event.

In his homily, the pope addressed these people who are mainly expatriate Catholics. And he said it's not easy for them to live far from home, missing the affection of family, uncertain about the future. And it was also the first time for him to meet a vibrant community of Catholics at a time when, in the Middle East as a whole, older Christian communities have been fleeing persecution by ISIS and other Islamic militants. And in this country, the UAE of great visible opulence, he praised these low wage earners also for their humility.


POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: He said, "you are a choir of many nations, languages and rights - a diversity that makes a symphony."

SHAPIRO: This was the first time any pope had visited this region. What was his overall goal?

POGGIOLI: Well, he was there - the main purpose was he was invited to take part in a big interreligious event. There were many imams. Participants included rabbis, muftis, Zoroastrian Sikhs. It ended with the pope and the grand imam of Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University signing a joint appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace, reject war and violence in the name of religion. And today on the flight back to Rome, he reiterated some of the fears he had expressed in his speech last night.


FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: He said, "for me, there is just one great danger in this moment - destruction, hatred among ourselves. And if we believers are unable to hold hands, embrace and pray, our faith will be defeated."

SHAPIRO: Just before he left on this trip, he condemned wars in the region, specifically the war in Yemen. And UAE, the country he was visiting, is part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. So how was that message received?

POGGIOLI: Well, he had spoke just before - a few hours before he left Rome, he spoke very forcefully. And his words were actually welcomed. The foreign minister said in a tweet, let's make 2019 a year of peace. Yesterday in his speech at the interreligious event, he spoke very clearly, citing Yemen along with Syria, Iraq and Libya. He called on the other religious leaders to commit themselves against what he called the logic of armed power against the monetization of relations, the arming of borders, the raising of walls, the gagging of the poor.

SHAPIRO: This pope is originally from Argentina, and I understand on the flight back to Rome, he weighed in on the turmoil in Venezuela. What did he have to say about that standoff?

POGGIOLI: He was asked whether the Vatican would be willing to mediate in the crisis in Venezuela, and he confirmed that he had been sent a letter from President Nicolas Maduro, whom most of the international community has declared illegitimate. But he hasn't been able to read it yet. He said, I'll see what can be done.

But he also insisted that the first condition is that both sides ask for mediation. He said, mediation is the last step in a slow, little steps-by-steps diplomatic process and that effort should be made to bring the two sides closer to each other to start a process of dialogue.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.