ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Pope Francis landed Sunday in Abu Dhabi on the first-ever papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula, where he is seeking to turn a page in Christian-Muslim relations while also ministering to a unique, thriving Catholic community.
Francis earlier Sunday called for the urgent observation of a limited cease-fire in Yemen reached in December and for food and medicine to get to its people, who are suffering the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
He made the appeal at the Vatican before boarding a plane to the United Arab Emirates, which has been Saudi Arabia's main ally in its war in Yemen — a way to avoid embarrassing his hosts with a public call while in the region. Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, greeted the pontiff with smiles along with Cabinet ministers and an honor guard when he landed around 9:50 p.m. in the Emirati capital.
"The people are exhausted by the long conflict and many children are hungry, but humanitarian aid isn't accessible," Francis said in his noontime Sunday blessing. "The cries of these children and their parents rise up" to God.
Francis traveled to Abu Dhabi to participate in a conference on interreligious dialogue sponsored the Emirates-based Muslim Council of Elders, an initiative that seeks to counter religious fanaticism by promoting a moderate brand of Islam. It's the brainchild of Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam that trains clerics and scholars from around the world.
In a video message to the Emirates on the eve of his trip, Francis paid homage to his "friend and dear brother" el-Tayeb and praised his courage in calling the meeting to assert that "God unites and doesn't divide."
"I am pleased with this meeting offered by the Lord to write, on your dear land, a new page in the history of relations among religions and confirm that we are brothers despite our differences," Francis said.
In a statement Saturday, Al-Azhar described the upcoming meeting as "historic" and praised the "deeply fraternal relationship" between its imam and the pope, which it said even includes birthday greetings. El-Tayeb also met Francis at the airport.
Francis and el-Tayeb are to address the "Human Fraternity Meeting" Monday that has drawn not only Christian and Muslim representatives but hundreds of Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other Christian faith leaders. It's all part of the Emirates' "Year of Tolerance" and its effort to show its openness to other faiths in a region otherwise known for severe restrictions on religions outside of Islam.