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DUBAI: Pope Francis said he was looking to write a new page in the history of relations between religions with his visit to the UAE from Sunday.

“I am happy … to write on your dear land a new page in the relations between religions, confirming that we are brothers although different,” he said in a video message to the Emirati people released on Thursday.

In the message, in Italian but also dubbed into Arabic, the pope thanked Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan for his invitation to participate in an interfaith meeting on “human fraternity” from Feb. 3 to 5.

He said the visit would give him the opportunity to again see “friend and dear brother” Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the head of Egypt’s top Sunni authority, whom he met on a visit in 2017. 

The pope said he believes the interfaith meeting reflects “the courage and willingness to affirm that faith in God unites rather than divides, brings together despite differences, and turns away from hostility and aversion.”

Francis also said the UAE was “a land that seeks to be a model of human fraternity and the meeting of diverse civilizations and cultures, where many find a safe place to work and live freely in the respect for diversity.” “I look forward to meeting a people who live in the present with their eyes on the future,” he added.

Francis has made boosting ties between Christianity and Islam a cornerstone of his papacy.

The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity, and most Gulf Arab states have long allowed Christians to worship in churches.

Nearly 80 percent of the population of the UAE is Muslim, while Christians constitute around 9 percent, according to the Catholic News Agency. Many of the Catholics are workers from Africa, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, though some are locals.

Quoting the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, founder of the UAE, the pope said: “True wealth lies not just in material possibilities. The real wealth of a nation is the individuals who hear the sound of their future.”

Souvenir shops in the UAE are stocking up with Christian memorabilia to mark the Papal visit. “I would like to keep some memory of some important events,” said UAE resident Sabu Thomas outside one store in Abu Dhabi. “When I saw the mug definitely I wanted to (buy) it.”

Valentino Cottini, who teaches Islamic-Christian relations at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome, said: “Pope Francis is different from his predecessor Benedict XVI because he prefers interpersonal encounters to theological subtleties.”

Pope Francis’ constant appeals for refugees to be welcomed, many of whom are Muslim, have helped win him support from the community, just as when he brought three Muslim families back on the papal plane from the Greek island of Lesbos.

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