Abu Dhabi: Pope Francis on Sunday became the first pontiff to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula, just hours after issuing his strongest condemnation yet of the war in Yemen, where his host the United Arab Emirates has a leading military role.
Shortly before departing for Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis said he was following the humanitarian crisis in Yemen with great concern, using his regular Sunday address in Vatican City to urge all sides to implement a fragile peace deal and help deliver aid to millions of hungry people.
“The cry of these children and their parents rises up to God,” he told tens of thousands of people in St Peter’s Square.
“Let us pray strongly because they are children who are hungry, who are thirsty, they don’t have medicine and they are in danger of death,” he said before boarding his flight.
The UAE welcomed the Pope’s message on Yemen and believes the peace deal he referred to was a historic breakthrough, Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter.
“Let us assure its implementation and make 2019 the year of peace in Yemen,” he said after the Pope landed in Abu Dhabi.
Yemen’s warring parties agreed a ceasefire in December at the first major peace talks of the nearly four-year-old war, which pits Arab states backing an exiled president against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls the capital.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, and the United Nations says millions are on the verge of starvation.
The Pope was greeted by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who escorted him to meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and university.
The pontiff embraced him. Both men will hold meetings with Pope Francis on Monday.
The UAE plays a leading role in the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis in Yemen.
The United Nations is trying to implement a truce and troop withdrawal deal in the main Yemeni port of Hodeidah, agreed at the December talks as a step that could pave the way for negotiations to end the conflict.
Vatican officials have said it is not clear whether Pope Francis will address the sensitive subject in public or private during his visit to Abu Dhabi, which is aimed at promoting interfaith xpatriate Catholics, many from the Philippines. Another 1 million Catholics are believed to live in other countries in the Arabian Peninsula.
The pope has already visited half a dozen predominantly Muslim nations during his reign, using the trips to call for inter-religious dialogue and to condemn the use of violence in the name of God.
Reuters / Sylvia Westall and Philip Pullella