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Is the pope returning to the United Arab Emirates?

Pope Francis may be returning to the Middle East, to take part in a climate summit at the end of November, according to sources close to the pontiff.

The summit, “COP28,” is a United Nations conference on climate change, and was discussed at length in the pope’s most recently-published apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum.

Sources close to the Vatican Secretariat for State confirmed to The Pillar Monday that after the pope was invited to attend the conference, which begins Nov. 30, the invitation was “taken seriously” at the Vatican, and has been discussed internally.

And while the trip has not been confirmed by the Vatican press office, Portuguese Catholics involved in the planning of World Youth Day were notified Monday that the pontiff has canceled a scheduled Nov. 30 audience.

In a video released Oct. 16, Portugal’s Cardinal Américo Aguiar explained that the pope’s Nov. 30 meeting with World Youth Day planners was canceled because of an “unscheduled” papal trip. 

Papal trips generally take months of meticulous planning, so an unscheduled trip, hinted at just one and a half months beforehand, is rare. 

According to senior sources close to that decision, the upcoming trip will be to United Arab Emirates, where the COP28 summit will be held from Nov. 30 until Dec. 12.

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The pope previously visited the UAE in 2019. 

It is unlikely that Francis will stay for the duration of the conference, but it’s possible he will address the participants on the first or second day, before returning to Rome. 

The trip would mark the the first time Pope Francis attends a COP summit in person — although the pope has long expressed interest in the meetings, and it was rumored that he would attend the 2021 COP26 summit in Glasgow.  

Papal participation in COP28 would tie in with the pontiff’s repeated warnings to world leaders to find solutions to curb rising temperatures and climate change. 

In Laudate deum, his apostolic exhortation released this month, Pope Francis wrote about the COP conferences, which have been held periodically since 1992, and specifically about what to expect from COP28. 

“This conference can represent a change of direction, showing that everything done since 1992 was in fact serious and worth the effort, or else it will be a great disappointment and jeopardize whatever good has been achieved thus far,” Francis wrote, adding that a sincere effort to make COP 28 a success “honors and ennobles us as human beings.”

A personal appearance at the event would help attract global attention to what Francis believes is a climate crisis with potentially disastrous consequences, and it could put pressure on other countries to fulfil their commitments to reducing carbon emissions, according to Father Vítor Melícias, a Portuguese Franciscan with a strong passion for environmental issues, who has close ties with UN Secretary General António Guterres.

“Pope Francis is one of the major global figures with a voice in this field, including with the publication of Laudato si’, and more recently Laudate deum.”

“Besides being a person who is very concerned with everything that has to do with wasted resources and pollution, he has also become one of the most well-informed people in this field, receiving advice from some of the greatest specialists.” 

“The pope’s presence at the COP summits is extremely important, be it spiritually, be it through messages sent to participants, or, if this trip is confirmed, through his personal attendance. I pray that the trip does in fact take place, as this would be a very positive sign for the world and for global leaders, so that they commit to more enthusiastic goals, but also so that they fulfil their commitments from previous editions, which have been far from good,” the priest added. 

A papal appearance at COP28 could also present an opportunity for the Vatican to engage diplomatically on the crisis in the Holy Land.

As a global event, nearly every country with a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be represented at the Dubai meeting, especially the Middle Eastern countries which might be otherwise more difficult for Vatican diplomats, and Francis in particular, to approach — among them Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Fr Vítor Melícias believes that if the trip does go ahead, Francis would not miss the opportunity to do promote peace in the region. 

“The pope has been in daily contact with the head of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, the Franciscan, and now cardinal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and we know that he is suffering terribly with what is happening in this conflict. We also know that the pope is not one to miss an opportunity, so I am sure that if he does go to Dubai he will take advantage of the situation to contact the many parties involved in this conflict, and do whatever he can to promote peace.” 

The visit to Dubai also resolves the always complicated issue of security that surrounds a papal visit, especially to the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates is generally regarded as one of the safest and most Western-friendly nations in the region, and security will already be amplified because of the world leaders at the conference. 

In short — despite the current lack of official confirmation on the part of the Vatican — it seems very likely that Francis will be returning to Dubai at the end of November in a move the Vatican could see as a chance both to cement his legacy as the most ecologically-minded pope in history, and to make an impact on regional politics in the midst of one of the worst conflicts in the Holy Land in recent decades. 

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