Pope Francis arrives at lavish UAE palace in humble Kia Soul
Abu Dhabi (CNN)Pope Francis kicked off his historic visit to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, arriving at Abu Dhabi’s lavish presidential palace in his trademark understated Kia Soul hatchback.
The small black car — a notable choice in a kingdom known for its gold-plated lifestyle — was flanked by cavalry as it wound its way toward the palace.
It’s the first time a pontiff has visited the Gulf state and Francis was greeted with an artillery salute and aircraft trailing yellow and white smoke through the sky in honor of the Vatican flag.
The Pope is on a three-day visit to the UAE capital, where he is set to attend an interreligious conference with Jewish and Christian leaders.
He is also scheduled to meet for a fourth time with the head of the Al-Azhar mosque — considered by many to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam — during the conference.
First stop, though, was a visit to the palace where Francis met with Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The three discussed “enhancing cooperation” and “important initiatives to achieve peace,” the Crown Prince tweeted.
In a handwritten message in the palace’s Book of Honor, the Pope thanked his hosts for their “warm welcome” and invoked “divine blessings of peace” on the people of the UAE.
The Crown Prince, in turn, gifted the Pope the act of notary dating back to June 22, 1963, for a donation of land to build the first church in the UAE.
The overwhelming majority of Emiratis are Muslim, but the country hosts a large expatriate population, some 1.2 million of whom are Christian.
Among churchgoers in the UAE, excitement at the visit has been at fever-pitch, church leaders told CNN. “It is as if Jesus is coming to my home,” said Faisal Kheeran, who is originally from Pakistan and has lived in the UAE for nearly a decade.
The trip culminates Tuesday with a papal mass at the Zayed Sports City, expected to be the single-largest gathering in the country, with about 135,000 attendees.
The UAE has declared Tuesday a holiday for invitees to the mass.