February 5, 2019 8:03 pm
Updated: February 9, 2019 7:32 pm

Human rights issues front and centre at Pope Francis’ mass in United Arab Emirates

Tens of thousands of Catholics and several thousand Muslims attended an unprecedented public celebration of mass by Pope Francis, the first pontiff in history to visit the Arabian peninsula, on Tuesday in Abu Dhabi.

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Pope Francis gave a historic open-air mass to 135,000 people in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) on Tuesday.

Thousands more greeted him as he arrived at the Zayed Sports City Stadium. An estimated one million Catholics live in the U.A.E.

The pontiff’s three-day visit is the first time the head of the Catholic Church has travelled to the Arabian Peninsula, the home of Islam.

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Many of the Catholics who attended the mass are low-paid workers from countries like India and the Philippines.

They are regarded by some as third-class residents of the U.A.E., where native Emiratis and better-paid westerners are favoured. Many work under the Kafala visa sponsorship program, which ties domestic workers to their employers, meaning workers need permission to change jobs or even leave the country.

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“Many of the migrant workers in the U.A.E. are subjected to the very exploitative Kafala system. There have been some reforms recently but not enough,” said Hiba Zayadin, an assistant researcher with Human Rights Watch who specializes in the U.A.E.

“It does not take away from the very restrictive environments that they (work) in.”

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 146,000 female migrant domestic workers were in the U.A.E. in 2017, mostly working in family homes.

That same year, new legislation in the U.A.E. mandated minimum standards for working conditions and guaranteed vacation days for domestic workers.

Myrna Padilla from Davao City, Philippines, was a domestic worker in different East Asian countries for almost 20 years.

She says that thousands of Filipinas like herself sacrifice so much to provide for their families.

“Your heart is crying because you’re thinking of your family back home,” she said.

Since returning home, Padilla has set up a smartphone app to help those suffering from mistreatment.

OFW Watch allows migrant workers to report abuse they are experiencing or that they suspect someone else is experiencing. The team at OFW Watch can then report the incident to employment agencies and to the nearest Filipino consulate.

Padilla says incidents can happen in any country and range from issues like poor working conditions to physical violence.

“You are not being paid exactly the amount stated in the contract, not being fed properly,” she said.

“And then, of course, a lot of maltreatment and then even rape.”

Padilla estimates that her app has helped more than 2,000 people escape abuse.

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The Pope also highlighted human rights issues during his trip to the Emirates, referencing the exploitation of the poor at a multi-faith event in Abu Dhabi.

He also spoke to the press about gender equality in the U.A.E. on his flight back to Vatican City.

“The mistreatment of women is a problem,” said Francis.

“I would dare to say that humanity has not yet matured. Women are second-class citizens, and it starts from there, no? It is a cultural problem.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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