United Arab Emirates (Matters India) : On Fridays, one can practically walk over car rooftops in the Mushrif neighbourhood as the faithful park wherever they can before rushing to services.
Roman Catholics hurry to mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Metres away, a chorus of voices rises from inside St. Andrew’s as Anglicans begin a hymn. The sound mixes with the chatter of dozens of children waiting in the morning sun for Bible lessons to start.
In the midst of the churches is the local mosque, where Muslim men wander up the steps of the pale stone building as they answer the call to prayer.
The Christians praying peacefully among their Muslim neighbours point to a unique phenomenon in the Middle East: in the United Arab Emirates, the number of churches is growing.
In 2005, there were 24 churches. Today there are about 40, according to figures from the U.S. State Department and Emirati authorities.
At St. Paul’s Church, a 4,560-square-metre complex in Musaffah, a fast-growing suburb of Abu Dhabi, Father Ani Xavier has been coping with a hectic schedule since the church opened in June. “We have 16 services on the weekend and 14 services during the week. It is happiness for me to see such a church in the desert. God has blessed us in this part of the world to live in safety and do our missionary work.”
Islam is the majority religion of the oil-rich emirates. Christians make up only 9 per cent of the eight million residents, and the vast majority of the Christian community hails from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. They are mostly here as expatriate workers.
The support for the Christian community comes straight from the top, said Bishop Paul Hinder, vicar apostolic of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vicariate of Southern Arabia. The emirates’ rulers donate free land to most churches and waive the costs of water and electricity.
“The sheikhs are realistic enough to see that, with the growing number of foreigners, they have to welcome them as Christians, and there is true religious tolerance,” said Hinder. “During the nearly 12 years I’ve lived here, I’ve met Emiratis who are amazingly open about the freedom to worship.”
Members of the royal families often attend the inaugurations of new churches, even though the 40 churches are a tiny number compared with the country’s 5,000 mosques.
“Our leadership knows its true wealth and accepts the obligation to respect and understand the many religious beliefs of the people living in this country,” said Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the minister of culture, youth and community development, at the opening of St. Paul’s Church, the National newspaper reported.
The Holy Martyrs’ Armenian Church, which opened in January, received free land. And when the community purchased crosses and Bibles from Lebanon, there was no problem importing them, said Raffi Simonian, 51, a member of the church committee.
“For Armenians, the church is not just a place to worship God,” he said. “It’s how we keep ourselves together, it is where we meet, socialize together.
“This is the importance of the church, especially after the genocide,” he said, referring to the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children by the Ottomans in present-day Turkey, starting in 1915.
Even though members of the various faiths generally mix peacefully, extra security precautions are in place. Closed-circuit television cameras are mounted around places of worship and discreet, plainclothes police patrol the neighbourhoods, said Rev. Andrew Thompson, the senior Anglican chaplain at St. Andrew’s Church.
No churches in the United Arab Emirates have been attacked.
“If you want to preserve the reputation of your country as a place where foreigners can live and work, you need to bump up security of the churches, which are a soft target, and the government has done that,” said Thompson.
Freedom of religion is not absolute: Proselytizing is banned, conversion from Islam is illegal and evidence of Christian worship on buildings, such as crosses or icons, may not be visible from the street.
But the rules are not always enforced. Five ornate gold crosses top the sky-blue domes of a Russian Orthodox Church built for 3,000 worshippers in Sharjah, an emirate north of Dubai.
The more pressing concerns are overcrowding of church buildings and raising funds, said Nabil Al Zahlawi, a Syrian-Canadian businessman who is a member of the church committee raising funds for Saint Elia, a $7-million Greek Orthodox Church under construction.
“On special occasions like Christmas and Easter our current church is too small. We had to put in a big screen so everyone outside could follow mass. We decided to make this church when we got free land from the authorities, but unfortunately it took a bit of time for the designs and architecture (to be completed), and then the recession hit. But we are determined to build it.”
Zahlawi said he had not felt religious tension in the Emirates.
“We are praying for Syria to be safe. I have relatives in Damascus. But here we celebrate with our family and friends and we don’t feel different and aren’t treated differently.”