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Pope to visit UAE in first-ever trip to Arabian Peninsula

Pope Francis, flanked by Vatican Prefect of the Pontifical Household, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, delivers his message during a weekly general audience, in the Pope Paul VI hall, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis plans to visit the United Arab Emirates in February to push for Christian-Muslim dialogue and peace in the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Feb. 3-5 trip to Abu Dhabi centers around an interfaith meeting, the Vatican said Thursday. Francis will also have the chance to meet with political leaders as well as the UAE’s Catholic community, which is made up almost exclusively of foreign workers.

It’s the latest trip to be announced in what is shaping up to be one of Francis’ busiest years for foreign travel, with trips to Central America, North Africa and now the Gulf confirmed, and ones to Asia and East Africa under consideration.

While Francis has visited other Muslim-majority nations, including Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, the UAE trip will mark the first pastoral visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula. Pope Paul VI visited Iran in 1970.

The theme of the UAE trip is peace, with the logo featuring a dove carrying an olive branch.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke noted that the trip, like one last year to Egypt, shows the importance Francis places on inter-religious dialogue.

“Pope Francis visiting the Arab world is a perfect example of the culture of encounter,” Burke said in a statement.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the UAE’s vice president and prime minister, welcomed news of the pope’s visit.

The visit “will strengthen our ties and understanding of each other, enhance interfaith dialogue and help us to work together to maintain and build peace among the nations of the world,” he tweeted.

Francis, who turns 82 this month, will make the trip just a week after returning home from Panama, where he is due to visit Jan. 22-27 to participate in the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day rally.

In March, Francis is due to travel to Morocco, while a 2019 trip to Japan is also under consideration. The cardinal from Madagascar has said Francis is expected to visit next year.

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.

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