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, and on Monday afternoon gave his first public speech at a meeting with Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders at the city’s Founder’s Memorial center.
The Pontiff called on the world’s religious leaders to reject war, mentioning the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.
“Let us commit ourselves against the logic of armed power,” Francis said. He also warned against the “raising of walls,” in what could be seen as a reference to President Donald Trump’s pledged border wall with Mexico.
In a wide-ranging speech, the Pope also mentioned the sexual abuse scandal which has embroiled the Catholic Church for decades, praising a November meeting held in Abu Dhabi on child dignity in the digital world.
Gifts fit for a Pope
Earlier in the day, Francis met with Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the Presidential Palace. 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 Pope’s meeting with palace officials comes at a delicate political time for the UAE, which is involved in a coalition with Saudi Arabia in a war in Yemen.
While it is unknown whether Francis discussed the topic with the Crown Prince during their private meeting, the Pope did issue a public plea for peace in Yemen from the Vatican on Sunday, just an hour before his departure for Abu Dhabi.
In off-the-cuff remarks not included in his prepared speech, the Pope said: “Let us pray loudly because there are children that are hungry, are thirsty, don’t have medicine and their lives are in danger.”
In response, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said in a tweet that he “welcomed” the pontiff’s prayers, calling on 2019 to be “the year of peace” in Yemen.
’Let us pray loudly’ for Yemen’s children
The Pope’s 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.
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.
CNN’s Delia Gallagher reported from Abu Dhabi, with Sheena McKenzie writing and reporting in London. Nada Altaher also contributed to this report