Pope Francis Makes ‘Historic’ Gulf Tour Amid Yemen Crisis and Christian Repression

Pope Francis arrives at the airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 3, 2019. The pope on Sunday became the first pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula, on a trip intended to improve relations with the Muslim world and bolster the Mideast’s persecuted Christian minority. (Andrew Medichini/Pool via The New York Times) -- FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis became the first pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, as he arrived in the United Arab Emirates on a trip seeking to improve relations with the Muslim world.

The pope will stay three days in the UAE, a relatively tolerant oasis that is home to some 1 million Christians. The oil-rich nation has promoted religious inclusion, complete with a Ministry of Tolerance, in part to burnish its attraction as a cosmopolitan center of glass towers and global commerce.

The country has generally granted religious freedom to its minorities, including the Catholic workers from India, the Philippines and South America who have helped fuel its growth, and the Vatican hopes the pope’s visit will ease the way for the creation of more churches to better serve their growing numbers here.

Those attributes make Abu Dhabi a beacon for the pope to point to in a part of the world where Christians are persecuted and vanishing.

But a visit to this country is not without its complications for a pope who preaches peace.

The UAE has joined its ally Saudi Arabia — which does not allow the construction of churches — in a brutal proxy war against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels of Yemen.

The four-year war has pushed Yemen’s small Christian communities into hiding and devastated the country, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and leading to the death by starvation of some 85,000 children.

The Saudi-led coalition, which is supported by the United States, has been accused of targeting or indiscriminately bombing civilians.

Hours before his departure, the pope told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square that he was monitoring with great worry the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and its children “who are hungry, they are thirsty, they don’t have medicine.”

“The population is exhausted by the long conflict, and many, many children are suffering from hunger but they are not able to get to food,” he said.

“The cry of these children and their parents rises up to God,” he added. “I appeal to all sides involved and to the international community to urgently press for respect of the agreements that have been reached, to guarantee the distribution of food, and work for the good of the population.”