Like millions of his compatriots, Filipino migrant Ray Erwin adores Pope Francis. This weekend, he is counting down the hours to a historic papal mass in Abu Dhabi.
“We are very grateful,” he told AFP. “It’s a chance of a lifetime.”
Erwin, 44, will be among 135,000 worshippers expected to gather on Tuesday when “Lolo Kiko” (Grandpa Francisco), as the pontiff is affectionately known in the Philippines, holds a vast open-air mass in the Muslim-majority Arabian Peninsula.
The pope’s three-day trip, which starts Sunday, is the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula — the birthplace of Islam.
While Muslims make up nearly four fifths of the UAE’s population, the country is also home to nearly a million Catholics, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.
Most are from India or the Philippines — like Erwin, who has a wife and two daughters and has lived there for 20 years.
Migrants from Asian countries make up about 65 percent of the population.
– ‘Connected by faith’ –
Decked out with Vatican flags and a lifelike picture of the pope, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the neighbouring emirate of Dubai has been abuzz with worshippers preparing for the pontiff’s arrival.
The church, which can hold about 2,500 worshippers, was packed during mass on Friday.
People lined the walls inside while others stood in the open air to watch the sermon on two big screens.
Indian Irene Ann Tomi, 16, said the pope’s visit would be “an eye opener for all the Christians and the Muslims in the UAE.”
“We are all human,” she said. “I believe we are connected by one thread, and that is faith.”
On Saturday, the last day to collect tickets for the mass, hundreds of people queued for passes while others lined up in front of a kiosk distributing goodie bags of memorabilia.
Irene, who is involved in youth activities at the church, said the congregation is influenced by the teachings of Pope Francis.
“We all try to incorporate his idea of smiling even when we have difficulties in our life,” she told AFP.
Irene said the UAE had given her and her family “a lot of freedom to pray in our churches”.
-‘Thank you, Lord’ –
The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity.
It has eight Catholic churches, compared to four each in Oman, Kuwait and Yemen.
Qatar and Bahrain have one each, while ultra-conservative Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim places of worship.
The pontiff’s trip is widely seen as encouraging inter-religious dialogue in the region.
Pope Francis will take part in an interfaith conference on Monday and will meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest seat of Islamic learning.
Early on Tuesday morning, more than 2,000 free buses will transport worshippers from across the Emirates to Abu Dhabi, way ahead of the mass scheduled for 10:30 AM (0630 GMT).
Local media say it will be the largest ever public gathering in the UAE.
Filipina Ruthcel Fermana, a nanny who has been living in Dubai for over five years, said she started jumping on the bed when she found out she would be on one of the buses.
“Early in the morning when I woke up and opened my phone and then saw the message and my name was on the list. I said: ‘Thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord, thank you Lord!'” she told AFP.
“Everything happens for a reason.”