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Pope calls for end to wars in Middle East in Gulf trip

Pope Francis shakes hands with Amal Al Qubaisi, the President of the UAE Federal National Council, in the presence of the Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, at the Abu Dhabi Presidential Palace, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. Francis travelled to Abu Dhabi to participate in a conference on inter religious dialogue sponsored the Emirates-based Muslim Council of Elders, an initiative that seeks to counter religious fanaticism by promoting a moderate brand of Islam. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Riyadh: Pope Francis called for an end to wars in the Middle East during the first visit by the head of the Catholic church to the birthplace of Islam — the Arabian Peninsula.

Francis, who has made outreach to Muslim communities a cornerstone of his papacy, is on a historic three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

 

He is scheduled to hold an open-air mass on Tuesday for 135,000 of the Muslim country’s million Catholic residents, set to be the largest ever public gathering in the Gulf state.

The pope held talks in Abu Dhabi with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb — imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s prestigious seat of learning — before delivering an address at an interfaith meeting.

In his address, the pontiff pushed the need for justice, equality of citizens’ rights and an end to all wars, including in Yemen.

The United Arab Emirates and neighbouring Saudi Arabia are key allies of the Yemeni government, which is locked in a war against Iran-backed rebels that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

The pope said all religious leaders had a “duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word war”.

“I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya,” he said at the interfaith meeting attended by Sheikh Ahmed and UAE leaders.

Yemen is the scene of what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, triggered by the intervention of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies in a war between the government and Huthi rebels.

More than 10 million Yemenis now risk imminent starvation.

The UAE, which prides itself on its religious diversity in the Gulf, is also a member of the US-led coalition battling the militant Islamic State group in both Syria and Iraq.

Sheikh Ahmed, who stressed in a speech that religion must never be used to justify violence, and the pope signed on Monday a document that Al-Azhar and the Vatican will work together to fight extremism.