As the first leader of the Catholic church to visit the Arabian peninsula, Francis knows his contact with Muslims will be as important as the mass he hosts for the Christian minority

Pope Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates this week will be greeted enthusiastically. Some 120,000 people are expected to turn out for his mass in a sports stadium in Abu Dhabi – as many as turned out in Dublin when he travelled to historically Catholic Ireland last year. The first visit by a pontiff to the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, highlights the complications of the religious situation in the Middle East, and more widely the issues of Christian-Muslim relations.

There may be as many as 2 million Christians in the Middle East today. Despite nearly 16 years of war and sometimes brutal persecution in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, many remain in the lands that were the cradle of Christianity. In part this is because it is still made as hard as possible for them to leave the region. The Christians of Iraq have largely been driven from their homes by persecution, as have some of the Christians of Syria, where a number have taken the side of the Assad dictatorship. But they have ended up in refugee camps rather than reaching notionally Christian Europe.

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