Pope Francis said Sunday he was “very distressed” over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed,” the pope said in the Vatican’s first reaction to a decision that has drawn international criticism.
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano had on Saturday carried reaction from different countries about Friday’s decision to turn the monument from a museum back into a mosque but without any comment.
A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics say is chipping away at the Muslim-majority country’s secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the past, he has repeatedly called for the stunning building to be renamed as a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Koran at Hagia Sophia.
Erdogan’s announcement came after a top court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.
In his long life, voodoo priest Kpohinto Medji has seen his religion flourish and then go into decline, banned for years by the authorities and pressured by other faiths.
Today, the ageing priest with mischievous eyes is somewhat happier.
Benin is gearing for its annual voodoo festival — an event that lures an influx of visitors to the capital Porto-Novo and underscores voodoo’s comeback in the country of its birth.
Houngo Hounto Square is among a number of squares, once owned by voodoo-worshipping families, that are being renovated.
Painters have been putting the finishing touches to its ochre walls ahead of the January 10 festival, and fetishes and tokens of the old religion are proudly on display.
“Before, it was a run-down, abandoned square,” the old priest said, speaking in the local language of Goun. “Today, it’s lovely.”
Voodoo, more often called “vodun” in West Africa, has a hierarchy of deities and tribal spirits of nature and sees revered ancestors living alongside the living.
It uses fetishes, magical practises and healing remedies, which followers consider to be divine.
But its rituals have often been distorted by Hollywood, which tends to stereotype the religion as a source of black magic.
Years of decline
In Benin itself, voodoo was battered by French colonisation, when it was demonised by Catholic missionaries.
A dozen years after Benin gained independence, voodoo was banned by Mathieu Kerekou, a Marxist-Leninist who came to power in a military coup.
His elected successor, Nicephore Soglo, lifted the ban, but the religion came under pressure once more with the spread of evangelism in West Africa, whose preachers often compare native religions with sorcery.
According to the latest available official figures, which date from 2013, practitioners of voodoo, who are called vodounsi, account for just 11 percent of Benin’s population, against nearly 30 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian.
“There are so many religions which have arrived in Benin, they have turned our brothers away from our faith,” said Raymond Zannou, a printer.
He ancestors built Houngbo Hounto Square. Today, “a minority of people take care of maintaining the squares, and often they are elderly,” he said.
City of squares
Porto-Novo, a city of about a quarter of a million people, originally developed as a port for slave trade under the Portuguese empire in the 17th century.
Its squares — 44, according to Gerard Bassale, head of a local cultural association called Ouadada — are one of its most distinctive features.
Many of them belong to local families, who built their homes there and established temples and housed their divinities as protection.
But many of them fell into sad disrepair, becoming a symbol itself of voodoo’s marginalisation. Many blamed squabbles within families about sharing out the cost of renovation.
“They are the identity of our town. They create links between people, they are where important ceremonies take place,” said Bassale, whose organisation is refurbishing the squares.
“If they disappeared, part of the town’s history would go with them.”
Restoring each square costs the equivalent of around $66,000 (60,000 euros). The funding comes from Cergy-Pontoise, a town in the greater Paris region that has twinning links.
Porto-Novo’s authorities are paying for solar-powered lighting for the squares and for cleaning them but do not maintain the voodoo shrines there, which it considers being private areas.
King Te Houeyi Migan XIV, the descendant of a long line of local chiefs, is delighted at the rebirth of the squares.
French colonizers used a forest that was sacred to his forebears to build Porto-Novo’s cathedral and governor’s palace.
The chief, clad in a magnificent purple gown, pointed to an ancient kapok tree towering over one of three renovated squares near the old palace.
“It is a sacred tree. Spirits live there,” said the king. “Every five years, we hold a great party and make sacrifices there.”
Paul Nouatin, treasurer of an association that maintains two of the squares, said there had been an upturn in interest in voodoo — around 20 young people had been initiated into the religion in December alone, he said.
Mito Akplogan Guin, the supreme head of voodoo in Porto-Novo, said he was optimistic.
“Catholics, Protestants, Muslims.. all their ancestors (in Benin) were followers of voodoo. Our religion can’t disappear in a flash.”
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has welcomed the idea of the United States government placing Nigeria on a special watch list for having “engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom”.
The Special Assistant (Media &Communications) to the CAN President, Adebayo Oladeji, disclosed this in a statement issued on Sunday.
According to the statement, although the group is not displeased with the fact that Nigeria is being listed for such, it is glad that the global community is not unaware of such realities.
“We are not happy that our country is being listed among the nations where religious intolerance is one of their hallmarks but it gladdens our hearts that, at least, the global community is not unaware of the fact that Nigerian Christians are becoming endangered species in their Fatherland,” the statement read in part.
The list, according to US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, contains countries like Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Mr. Pompeo explained that the protection of religious freedom is a top priority for the Trump administration foreign policy and that it will work diligently to promote religious freedom and combat abuses.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram and eight other terrorists group have been described as ‘Entities of Particular Concern’.
CAN believes that the reasons given by the US for including Nigeria on the list are too glaring to be disputed. Adding, “is it not true that “the Nigerian Federal Government Failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable,” as noted by the US government?
Read the full statement below.
RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC INTOLERANCE: US IS STANDING ON THE SIDE OF TRUTH FOR PLACING NIGERIA ON SPECIAL WATCH LIST
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) welcomes the placing of the country on a special watch list by the US government despite the fact that we were not contacted before the decision was taken. We are not happy that our country is being listed among the nations where religious intolerance is one of their hallmarks but it gladdens our hearts that, at least, the global community is not unaware of the fact that Nigerian Christians are becoming endangered species in their Fatherland.
The reasons given by the United States are too glaring to be disputed. The US, like every other country, has an embassy here that monitors and reports back what the country is going through and the approach being adopted by the government to addressing the situation. Is it not true that “The Nigerian federal government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable,” as noted by the US government?
The leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has made this known to President Muhammadu Buhari in all our meetings with him to see the whole country as his constituency and to avoid nepotism as much as possible; but instead of correcting the imbalance, one of his aides is fond of abusing and insulting the Association using every unprintable words.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, few days ago, called for amendment to the Constitution with a view to adding more Sharia contents. Since the Chief Justice has not denied the story and the government has failed to call him to order, it is crystal clear that the US government has more facts than the government thinks. If the government is sensitive to our yearnings and aspirations, how come no Christian is heading any of the three arms of government in the present dispensation? This is unprecedented in the history of this country since Independence. Is that one of the reasons why no Christian worthy of occupying any of those sensitive positions?
Another slap on our face is the composition of the National Security Council of the country. We learnt that 98 per cent of its members come from one part of the country and people of same faith. Let the government unmask its members including their religions and states of origin. The government is telling us that Christians are not worthy for those key appointments but to play the second fiddle.
So, another thing that could be responsible for the action of the US government is the lopsided appointments in the polity which confirms popular fear and perception that the government is against the Christians. We have made it abundantly clear to President Muhammadu Buhari repeatedly that the lopsided appointments of his government in favour of one religion and a section of the country is unconstitutional, violates Nigeria’s Federal Character Principle and so it is unacceptable. But the action of the President is strong enough to convince us that he is not ready to correct the imbalance of his appointments forgetting that the country belongs to all Nigerians irrespective of their religious, tribal and political beliefs. The recent appointments in the Police is a good evidence to the critical posture of CAN.
There are enough evidences to prove that the subtle Islamisation agenda and nepotism are real. All the key appointments that are being made since the second term of the President began follow same blueprint. These are facts and they are violations of some portions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). These include but not limited to Sections 10, 13 (3-4), 15 (2) (d) and (4).
It is widely believed that no country survives two civil wars. We, therefore, call on the government to correct the imbalances and not to be insensitive to the new development but instead address all the factors that are responsible. The government can deny all these facts to the governed but the US government cannot act on mere make-up stories. Of the three arms of the government, none is being headed by a Christian? Why?
Is the US government not aware of the untold hardship Christians are going through in the country, especially in states such as Kaduna, Benue, Plateau, Adamawa and Taraba where Christians are being slaughtered like rams by the Boko Haram terrorists and killer herdsmen while the security agencies appear powerless, complacent and it seems as if the government of the day lacks political will to deal with the criminals? Although we are not unaware of the fact that some Muslims living in those states are also affected but since these states are predominantly Christian, the primary targets of violence, barbaric killings and destruction of properties are Christians.
It is a fact that not fewer than 95 per cent of those who are being detained by the terrorists are Christians and the government has been paying lips service towards securing their freedoms. Leah Sharibu is a case study and the only reason why the government that secured the release of her colleagues has not freed her is because of her religion. We wonder why the government has not done the needful to liberate this innocent girl who happens to be a daughter of a Police officer.
It is disheartening and disappointing to note that even the ongoing anti-graft war of the government is not an exemption. While CAN is not encouraging corrupt practices but we are against selective approach to the fight against corruption. From the position of this government, it is only few Christians holding key appointments in this dispensation that are corrupt. This is a fallacious position.
CAN urges the Federal Government to let its policies be implemented according to the dictates of the Constitution. The bitter truth is Christians are yet to be given any sense of belonging since this government came on board. Our prayers include wisdom and the courage for President Muhammadu Buhari to give all citizens a sense of belonging, irrespective of their religious, tribal and political affiliations. He should govern the country as the Father of the nation. We commend the United States for standing on the side of the oppressed and the truth.
Pastor Adebayo Oladeji, Special Assistant (Media &Communications) to the CAN President, His Eminence, Rev Dr Samson Ayokunle.
Pope Francis Sunday railed against atomic weapons, the nuclear deterrent, and the growing arms trade, as he paid tribute to the victims of the “unspeakable horror” of the Nagasaki bomb.
In a highly symbolic visit to the Japanese city devastated by the nuclear attack in August 1945, Francis said nuclear weapons were “not the answer” to a desire for security, peace, and stability.
“Indeed they seem always to thwart it,” he said.
At least 74,000 people died from the atomic bomb unleashed on the city in western Japan — just three days after the world’s first nuclear attack hit Hiroshima and killed at least 140,000.
“This place makes us deeply aware of the pain and horror that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another,” said the sombre pontiff on the first full day of his Japan trip.
Hundreds of people in white waterproofs sat in torrential rain to hear the pope’s speech, next to the emblematic photo of a young boy carrying his dead baby brother on his back in the aftermath of the attack.
He laid a wreath of white flowers and prayed silently, unprotected from the lashing downpour.
‘Die like a human’
Francis took aim at what he called the “perverse dichotomy” of nuclear deterrence, saying that peace is incompatible with the “fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation.”
This marked a break with past pontiffs — in a 1982 UN speech, Pope John Paul II had described nuclear deterrence as a necessary evil.
The 82-year-old Francis also hit out at the “money that is squandered and the fortune made” in the arms trade, describing it as an “affront crying out to Heaven” in a world where “millions of children are living in inhumane conditions.”
Later Sunday, Francis will visit Hiroshima and meet survivors of the atomic attack, known in Japanese as hibakusha, at the world-famous Peace Memorial in the city synonymous with the horror of nuclear war.
Two survivors of Nagasaki, 89-year-old Shigemi Fukahori and 85-year-old Sakue Shimohira, handed the wreath to the pope.
Fukahori, a Catholic, has prayed every day for those killed and their bereaved families.
“My heart is just full of overflowing feelings,” he said. “Just meeting him is enough. I’m so glad and speechless.”
Shimohira, who was 10 at the time of the attack, conveyed the terror of the bomb.
“My mother and older sister were killed, charred. Even if you survived, you couldn’t live like a human or die like a human… It’s the horror of nuclear weapons,” she said.
At a Mass at a baseball stadium in Nagasaki with worshippers now shielding their eyes from the sun, Francis said the city “bears in its soul a wound difficult to heal” and warned that “a third World War is being waged piecemeal.”
‘Fondness and affection’
The Argentine pontiff is fulfilling a long-held ambition to preach in Japan — a country he wanted to visit as a young missionary.
“Ever since I was young I have felt a fondness and affection for these lands,” said Francis when he arrived in Japan.
Like in Thailand, the first leg of his Asian tour, Catholicism is a minority religion in Japan.
Most people follow a mix of Shinto and Buddhism, with only an estimated 440,000 Catholics in the country.
Christians in Japan suffered centuries of repression, being tortured to recant their faith, and Francis paid tribute to the martyrs who died for their religion.
Alongside its nuclear history, Nagasaki is also a key city in Christian history where so-called “Hidden Christians” were discovered after keeping the faith alive in secret for 200 years while Japan was closed to the world.
The pope said in Nagasaki that as a “young Jesuit from the ‘ends of the earth'” he had found “powerful inspiration in the story of the early missionaries and the Japanese martyrs.”
Francis returns to Tokyo on Sunday night where he will on Monday meet victims of Japan’s “triple disaster” — the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
He is also scheduled to deliver a Mass at a Tokyo baseball stadium, meet Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito and hold talks with Japanese government officials and local Catholic leaders.
Pope Francis led an impassioned mass for tens of thousands of emotional worshippers at a packed Bangkok stadium Thursday, urging respect for prostitutes and trafficking victims in a part of the world where sex work is rampant.
The remarks came at the end of a whirlwind day of meetings for Pope Francis, who is on his first trip to Buddhist-majority Thailand where he is carrying a message of religious harmony and peace.
He heads to Japan next, visiting the twin atomic bombs sites of Nagasaki and Hiroshima where he will seek a ban on “immoral” nuclear weapons.
The 82-year-old arrived at the stadium in a golden robe woven for him from Thai silk, greeting crowds of flag-waving faithful, some wiping tears from their faces at the sight of the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.
An estimated 60,000 worshippers gathered for the mass, some pouring into a nearby stadium to watch the hymn-filled service on large screens.
Known for his down-to-earth style, the Pope did not shy away from difficult topics.
He focused on the importance of helping vulnerable children and women “who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking, humiliated in their essential human dignity”.
He also referred to drug addicts, migrants and “exploited sinners and bypassed beggars”.
“All of them are part of our family. They are our mothers, our brothers and sisters. Let us not deprive our communities of seeing their faces, their wounds, their smiles and their lives,” said the Pope, after leading prayers.
The remarks were delivered in a region beloved by tourists but infamous for a thriving sex trade and unchecked human trafficking.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, home to at least 300,000 sex workers — some four percent of whom are believed to be trafficked, according to official estimates.
Many women are drawn to the work because they can earn up to 10 times more than the minimum wage, and critics say some corrupt Thai authorities turn a blind eye to the thriving trade.
Earlier, the Pope praised Thailand’s efforts to stamp out the “scourge” of exploitation and enslavement of women and children, urging a “dignified” future for vulnerable youth.
The Catholic Church has been shaken by child sex abuse scandals itself in recent years, with many high-profile cases brought against clergy.
– ‘Gift from God’ – Thailand has not had a visit from a pontiff since John Paul II in 1984, and the small but spirited Catholic community was thrilled ahead of the mass.
Just over 0.5 percent of the population is Catholic but the community has been here for centuries.
For Pimrapat Panyawattanatikul, the service was her second shot at seeing a pope after John Paul II touched her head some 35 years ago.
Now she’s hoping her mother will get a similar honour, with the pair sitting right on the track Francis was set to drive past in his Popemobile.
“It’s a miracle we got these seats. It’s my mom’s dream to see the pope and to go to Italy. This is a gift from God,” Pimrapat told AFP, her mother next to her clutching a rosary.
The Pope’s colourful mass capped a packed schedule on the first full day of Thailand where he was welcomed Wednesday by cheering worshippers in Bangkok eager for a glimpse of his motorcade.
On Thursday Francis followed in the footsteps of John Paul II, paying a visit to the supreme Buddhist patriarch Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong at one of Bangkok’s famed gilded temples.
The pair sat before a brilliant gold Buddha statue inside the ornate temple, built 150 years ago by the former Thai King — the supreme patriarch barefoot and draped in orange robes as they spoke.
The Pope reciprocated the gesture, removing his shoes for part of the tete-a-tete.
In an earlier speech, the Pope said the meeting was “a sign of the importance and urgency of promoting friendship and inter-religious dialogue”.
– Nuclear ban – This visit coincides with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the “Mission de Siam”, marking the first papal mission from Europe in the 17th century.
Though Christianity’s first visitors were initially met with scepticism, today Thailand’s nearly 400,000 Catholics face little discrimination.
The Pope also paid a visit to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, gifting the top royal a colourful mosaic of a papal blessing in Vatican City’s Saint Peter’s Square.
On Friday the pontiff will host another mass, this one for young people, and meet with religious leaders in the city.
He jets to Japan Saturday, where he will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both devastated when the US dropped atomic bombs at the end of World War II in 1945.
The pope, who years ago had hoped to be a missionary in Japan, has made strong calls for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Indian police have arrested more than 500 people ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on a hotly disputed religious site in the holy city of Ayodhya, media reports said, with authorities fearing the verdict could trigger unrest.
The decision on the future of the site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims is due by November 17 and thousands of paramilitaries have already been sent to the northern city.
Hindu hardliners want a temple built on the site, currently barricaded off decades after a 16th-century mosque there was demolished during 1992 riots that left 2,000 people dead.
Hindus believe the mosque was built over the site of the birthplace of their god Ram.
Security is being tightened across India in the run-up to the ruling and Uttar Pradesh state police chief O.P. Singh told the Economic Times that more than 500 arrests had been made.
“The main message to the police force is to maintain peace at any cost,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Most of the suspects were taken into custody while a further 70 people were detained over their social media posts, he said — warning the internet could be blocked in the region if required.
Singh added that police had also identified more than 10,000 people he described as “anti-social”.
A police spokesman declined to comment to AFP.
In recent years Ayodhya has become a rallying point for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Some senior BJP members are being tried separately over their role in the mosque’s 1992 destruction.
In 2010, a High Court divided the disputed land between Hindu and Muslim groups but both parties appealed to the Supreme Court which has since repeatedly put off a verdict.
Media reports say Modi has told ministers to refrain from making comments on the case that could fuel tensions.
For minority Muslims, the dispute and a recent clampdown in Muslim-majority Kashmir have become symbols of the hostility that they say they face from the government.
Hindus make up about 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population while there are about 200 million Muslims.
The deep poverty and isolation of the Fulani people have made many vulnerable to the siren call of the jihad — an appeal that today is disseminated at lightning speed on WhatsApp and Facebook.
The herders’ prominent role in the jihadist revolt has ignited long-standing rivalries, based on access to land, with farmer groups.
The conflict has turned a once-peaceful tourist region into a no-go area for visitors, its highways sown with roadside bombs, and swathes of the countryside are littered with abandoned burned-out villages.
Hundreds have been killed and the situation is getting worse by the day — the number of people who have fled their homes in Mopti has quadrupled over the last year to 70,000, according to the UN.
The violence in Mali, in turn, has spread to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, stirring anxiety among the coastal states of West Africa that they could be next in line.
Two people died from heat exhaustion after attending a mass open air faith healing session in northeast Sri Lanka which left 13 others fighting for their lives, police said Sunday.
Around 10,000 people, some of whom were seriously ill, had gathered at a school to listen to a man who claimed he could use “powers of the gods and the Buddha” to cure the sick.
Police in the town of Horowupotana, 260 kilometres (162 miles) north-east of Colombo said 18 people were taken to hospital, with 13 in a critical condition.
Officials at the local hospital said the two who died suffered heat exhaustion while others were treated for dehydration. Temperatures have soared to about 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the area this weekend.
The faith healer, Deegoda Kumara, used his YouTube channel to deny he had caused the deaths and accused local media of causing unrest by spreading mistrust about his work.
In one video, Kumara claimed to have revived a road accident victim who had been in a coma in a Californian hospital. He said he blessed the victim after speaking to her relatives on the phone.
The ruling in Australian Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his conviction on historical child sex abuse charges will be handed down on August 21, court officials announced Thursday.
Pell, 78, the former Vatican number three, was sentenced in March to six years in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting two choirboys in the 1990s.
A three-judge panel of Victoria state’s Supreme Court has been deliberating his case since hearing his appeal over two days in early June.
The judges can decide to reject the appeal, order a retrial or acquit Pell, the Catholic Church’s most senior convicted child molester.
Pell was convicted of sexually abusing the two choirboys in 1996 and 1997 after Sunday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
His lawyers raised 13 objections to his conviction on five counts of sexual abuse, arguing it was “physically impossible” for the cleric to have committed the crimes in a crowded cathedral.
They cast doubt on everything from the timing of the incident following Sunday services to whether he would have been able to move his cumbersome archbishop’s robes enough to commit the assaults.
The appeal maintains that the case against Pell was unreasonably dependent on the testimony of a single victim –- the other died in 2014 — and fell short of proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecutors insisted the jury verdict against the one-time top Vatican official was “unimpeachable”.
Whichever side loses the appeal is expected to take their case to Australia’s High Court — the country’s final court of appeal.
Since his conviction, Pell has been removed as the Vatican finance chief and lost his place in the so-called C9 Council of Cardinals that is effectively the pope’s cabinet and inner circle of advisers.
The Vatican has opened its own probe into Pell’s actions. If his conviction is upheld, it could lead to his expulsion from the priesthood.
“I appeal to all parties concerned and to the international community to allow the urgent respect of established accords to ensure the distribution of food,” he said.
“The population is exhausted by the lengthy conflict and a great many children are suffering from hunger, but cannot access food depots, he added.
“The cry of these children and their parents rises up to God.”
Nearly one million Catholic migrants reside in the UAE, mostly hailing from the Philippines and India. Around 135,000 have secured precious tickets to Tuesday’s mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
On Sunday morning, hundreds of Catholics queued in drizzling rain outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi to get their passes.
“I think the pope coming really opens doors for conversations about tolerance that the whole world needs to hear,” said Collins Cochet Ryan, a 39-year-old expectant mother from the US.
For Indian Doris D’Souza, who lives in Goa, Pope Francis’s trip to the UAE was not to be missed.
“Since I came to know about the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi, we jumped (at) the opportunity to be witness.”
The UAE capital’s main streets and those leading to St. Joseph’s Cathedral — which the pope is set to visit on Tuesday — were lined with Vatican City flags and banners of the interreligious meeting.
‘Terrorism vs. love’
UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash extended an official welcome to Pope Francis on Sunday.
“It is a visit that carries great humanitarian value, and the UAE adds a new (chapter) in the history of fraternity and tolerance,” he tweeted.
He took an apparent jab at Qatar, which hosts Islamist cleric Youssef al-Qardawi and is engaged in a bitter standoff with its Gulf rivals.
Gargash pointed out the difference “between those hosting a cleric of violence and terrorism… and those who host the pope and the Al-Azhar sheikh for a dialogue of love and communication”.
The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, cut all ties with Doha in June 2017 over allegations it supports extremists.
The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity.
It has eight Catholic churches. Oman, Kuwait and Yemen each have four.
Qatar and Bahrain have one each, while ultra-conservative Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim places of worship.
The UAE has however been criticised by rights groups for its involvement in a bloody Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed in four years of war.
Millions of Yemenis face imminent starvation, according to the UN.
Rights groups have also slammed the Gulf state for upholding a 10-year prison term against activist Ahmed Mansoor on December 31 — two weeks after the UAE declared 2019 the “Year of Tolerance”.
“Despite its assertions about tolerance, the UAE government has demonstrated no real interest in improving its human rights record,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said Sunday.
“But the UAE has shown how sensitive it is to its image on the global stage, and Pope Francis should use his visit to press UAE leaders to meet their human rights obligations at home and abroad.”