Numbers for the tightly-controlled event however are limited and those wishing to attend were required to apply online at their church some weeks ago and then take part in a ticket draw.
Many, like housemaid Marisa Martija, from the Philippines, were desperate to go to the mass, but didn’t apply because they didn’t think they would get the day off. The 45-year-old, who works 12 hours-a-day six-days a week for a family in Dubai, where she has lived for more than 10 years. “To me, it is like God is coming himself, but I can’t go because of my job,” she said sadly.
In late January, more than a week after online applications closed, the government, which is providing free transport to the stadium from all over the country, announced private sector workers with tickets should be granted a day off to attend the mass, although it is not known how or whether this will be enforced. For those who cannot attend in person, there will be an internet livestream of the mass.
Filipina accountant Mila Serbenia and her husband Sherwin, booked leave as soon as the mass date was announced last year. The mother-of-three, whose children live with family members back in the Philippines, said she had been prepared to use a day of leave to attend, but was happy it was now a designated holiday.
“It is a rare opportunity to see the Pope,” she said. “When I watch him on You Tube or the news, I already get goosebumps, so to know I will see him in the flesh, I am very excited. It will be a really great blessing and a once in a life time opportunity.”
The 41-year-old added: “I know we are very lucky and blessed to have got tickets. A lot people wanted to go but the space is limited, and there are also people who can’t get the day off because of their work as nannies or in healthcare or other jobs like that.”
Beyond the significance of the visit for the Catholic community, for the UAE, hosting Pope Francis is an opportunity to promote the country’s regional and global status and to demonstrate its recognition of its expatriate population and their religious beliefs.
The Papal Visit is a centrepiece event of 2019, which the government has designated the Year of Tolerance.
In a video address recorded days ahead of his Middle East trip, Pope Francis himself praised the UAE, describing itself as “a country that is striving to be a model for co-existence, human fraternity, and meeting of faiths and civilisations”.
For some, however, the UAE’s tolerance branding jars with its authoritarian nature. In spite of its popularity as a holiday destination for Britons, the country, which is a leading player in the conflict in Yemen along side Saudi Arabia, a key regional ally, bans political parties and groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it routinely jails rights activists and critical voices.
Last year the government found itself in the international spotlight over the jailing of British academic Matthew Hedges, who was convicted of espionage but later released. Last week, a Reuters report detailed how the UAE had hired former US National Security Agency (NSA) operatives to use state-of-the-art cyber-espionage tools to track human rights activists, journalists and foreign adversaries from Iran, Qatar and Turkey, as well as those who criticised the monarchy.
“In the light of the news about intrusive surveillance on journalists and critics, and the instances of harassment against academics such as Matthew Hedges, it is essential to ask ourselves the true meaning of tolerance in the UAE’s state rhetoric,” said Cinzia Bianco, a senior analyst, at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based thinktank.
“Given the government’s repression of political Islam, is it selective religious pluralism, of the kind that is appealing to international partners?” she asked.
Hedges, now back home in the UK after spending seven months in largely solitary confinement in a UAE jail, described the Year of Tolerance as “a meaningless PR stunt”.
“I do hope that more tolerance is practised in the UAE, but the reality is that with the level of paranoia felt amongst those in charge, I don’t think it will be,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.
Hiba Zayadin, a researcher within the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, also dismissed the Year of Tolerance as “empty rhetoric”. “There are so many examples of intolerance and repression in the UAE that it is almost laughable that they have this year of tolerance. It’s all about their image,” she said.
Zayadin, who is based in Jordan, also said that given most of the people attending the mass would be low-paid migrants, she hoped Pope Francis would bring attention to the well-documented abuse of workers’ rights in the country, and that he also used his visit to address the conflict in Yemen.
“We would urge that this visit puts pressure on the UAE, a prominent player in Yemen, to investigate alleged serious abuses by their armed forces in the country and those of the Yemeni forces that they are supporting.”
Pope Francis, who is known for his outspokenness, has already made several public appeals for a ceasefire in Yemen and called for more humanitarian support for the millions affected by the war there.
Father Michael O Sullivan, who is co-ordinating the Papal visit on behalf of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, said Yemen would certainly be addressed during the Pontiff’s 36-hour stay in the country, but he did not expect direct criticism against the UAE or its allies.
“The situation here is quite different from any other normal country, in that we are all guests here and not only are invited to behave as guests, but also to appreciate the host country,” he said.