Pope Francis underlined the importance of tolerance in a region known for its restrictions on religious freedom and condemned what he described as the “misery” of war during the first visit to the Arabian Peninsula by a pontiff.
“As-salāmu alaykum,” he told a gathering of interfaith leaders in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, using an Arabic term favored by devout Muslims that translates in English to “Peace be upon you.”
“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word 'war,'” he told the audience outside a memorial to the founding father of the United Arab Emirates.
“Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya,” he added.
The comments may sting in a country that is Saudi Arabia’s main ally in the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the country’s Houthi rebels. The war has helped cause the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The UAE was also a supporter of the Syrian opposition which aimed to overthrow President Bashar al Assad. And the Emiratis have in the past been suspected of carrying out airstrikes in Libya in support of opposition fighters to Libya’s U.N.-backed government.
The pope — who arrived in Abu Dhabi late Sunday and will to stay in the country for 40 hours — was welcomed with a grand ceremony that included an artillery salute and military flyover.
Before leaving for the UAE on Sunday, Francis made an appeal for urgent observation of a limited ceasefire in war-torn Yemen so that food and medicine can get to its people.
"The cries of these children and their parents rise up" to God, he said at the Vatican before heading to Rome's airport for his flight. The pre-trip appeal was believed to have been a way for Francis to avoid embarrassing his hosts with a public denunciation of the humanitarian costs of war while in the region.
But the pontiff’s rejection of any violence could not have been clearer.
“We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace,” he told those seated in front of The Founders Memorial.
“We cannot honor the creator without cherishing the sacredness of every person and of every human life,” he said. “No violence can be justified in the name of religion.”
Francis said the world’s religions had a responsibility to “contribute actively to demilitarizing the human heart.”
“The arms race, the extension of its zones of influence, the aggressive policies to the detriment of others will never bring stability,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of religious tolerance in the region and said he looked forward to societies where "people of different beliefs have the same right of citizenship."
The Roman Catholic Church believes there are some one million Catholics in the UAE. Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families for work and can face precarious labor conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.
While the UAE affords residents the right to practice their religion, critics say there is a difference between freedom to worship and true religious freedom. Crosses, for example, can only be displayed inside churches, proselytizing for faiths other than Islam is banned and Muslims are forbidden from converting.
In other countries in the region, freedom of religion is severely restricted. In Saudi Arabia, the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited and the right to practice in private is not always upheld, according to the State Department.
Francis' speech was the highlight of his trip to the UAE where he met with Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Emirati vice president and prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Following the interfaith meeting, Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's foremost religious institution, signed a document entitled "Human Fraternity for world peace and living together."
In the document, the religious leaders stated that God's name should never be used to justify war, terrorism or any form of violence. They also called for women's rights to be recognized and respected and for greater dialogue between religions.
Francis will culminate his visit on Tuesday with the first-ever papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula — a gathering expected to draw some 135,000 faithful in a never-before-seen display of public Christian worship here.
In a sign that regional politics was playing a not-insignificant role in Francis' visit, the papal plane flew north of Qatar and around the peninsular, energy-rich nation on his flight Sunday. Four Arab nations — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have been boycotting Qatar since June 2017 as part of a regional political dispute.
By avoiding Qatari airspace, Francis omitted sending a telegram of greetings to the country's ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as he would do when flying through the airspace of countries. He sent one when passing by the island nation of Bahrain.