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Francis becomes 1st pope to celebrate Mass in Arabian Peninsula

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Image: Pope Francis holds a mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi,
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. -
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Luca Zennaro
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis concluded his historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula on Tuesday with the first-ever papal Mass in the United Arab Emirates and a call for his flock to remain meek in following God.

Pope Francis blesses a child before celebrating Mass in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
Pope Francis blesses a child before celebrating Mass in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.Vatican Media

A day after making a broad appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace and reject war, Francis celebrated what some considered the largest show of public Christian worship on the peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.

Cheers erupted inside and outside the Zayed Sports City Stadium as Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile, as chants of "Viva il Papa" and "We love you!" echoed from the crowd, estimated to be around 135,000.

Organizers said faithful from 100 countries were expected, evidence of the enormous diversity among the 9 million people who live in the UAE.

The Emirates' Catholic community is something an anomaly for the region — large, diverse and thriving at a time when the wider Mideast has seen an exodus of Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of the Islamic State group and others.

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The Catholic Church estimates as many as 1 million of the over 9 million living in the UAE are Catholic, nearly all of them foreigners drawn to the oil-rich federation to work in everything from white-collar finance to construction. Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families back home in order to come here and work. They can face precarious labor conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.

The pontiff's homily was delivered in Italian and translated into Arabic with English subtitles on giant screens.

Francis told his flock — many of them poor, manual laborers — that they need not build great "superhuman" works to be faithful. It was a message extolling meekness in a country that is home to the world's biggest skyscraper and is known for its opulence and excess.

Pope Francis during Tuesday\'s Mass.
Pope Francis during Tuesday\'s Mass.Vatican Media

Jesus, Francis said, "did not ask us to build great works or draw attention to ourselves with extraordinary gestures. He asked us to produce just one work of art, possible for everyone: our own life."

On Monday, the pope met with Emirati leaders and signed a document promoting "human fraternity" with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning. He also urged religious leaders to work together to reject the "miserable crudeness" of war and resist the "logic of armed power ... the arming of borders, the raising of walls."

"There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future," Francis told Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis and swamis gathered in the Emirati capital at a time when the UAE-backed Saudi war in Yemen has driven the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.

"God is with those who seek peace," Francis added.

Francis' visit, 800 years after his peace-loving namesake St. Francis of Assisi visited an Egyptian sultan, marked the culmination of years of Holy See efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world after they hit a low during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.