Christianity in the UAE: Culture and Heritage
Twice a day, five times a week, the sleepy streets that surround Abu Dhabi's British School Al Khubairat swell with cars driven by time-stressed parents preparing to drop off or pick up their children. Residents will tell you that rush hour melts away almost as soon as it arrives. Only a few minutes after the afternoon school bell sounds, the area falls back into a comfortable slumber.
The crowds return in greater numbers at the weekend when a different blending of sounds announces the arrival of thousands of worshippers to the multi-denominational enclave next door, where churches and the impressive Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Mosque sit side-by-side in a form of multicultural harmony, where people throng the streets, vehicles fill the school's empty car parks and expectant chatter is all around.
The Reverend Andrew Thompson MBE, Senior Anglican Chaplain at St Andrew's church, estimates that more than 10,000 worshippers pass through the church compound gates on any given Friday and anticipates that figure will double for this weekend's Easter celebrations.
By any estimation it is a staggering number and stands as a testament to this nation's acceptance of different cultures or, as Thompson notes in his book Christianity in the UAE: Culture and Heritage: "It turned out that living the Christian faith in the Muslim world is in some ways easier than living the faith in a secular society."
In total, there are more than 35 church buildings across the country. "The late ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, set the ethos for religious tolerance," writes Thompson in his introduction,
His 200-page volume is at once a thought-provoking and intelligent read. Drawing on a raft of local sources he presents a snapshot of the UAE's Christian community and its history. Life may have moved on a little since its 2011 publication, but his book remains as timely as ever.
Thompson says he was compelled to write his book because "there is a fantastic good news story that we are in a Muslim country and we've been given this amazing platform of religious freedom. That is not the experience of a lot of Christian communities in the Middle East." He cites Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq as nations where the church is facing "tough and perilous times".
His pages survey the development of the Evangelical Church, as well as the history of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Indian and Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Churches and suggests a vision of the church in the Emirates in decades to come. All four main threads of Christianity - Oriental Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic - are represented here.
Of particular interest are the passages about the development of St Andrew's. Originally sited on the Corniche in an "uncompromisingly modern" building, the facility was ordained 45 years ago last month. When the government required the land occupied by both it and the Roman Catholic church for development, St Andrew's moved to its present Mushrif location, where the first foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of York in 1982. In true Abu Dhabi fashion, the site is currently undergoing another transformation, with the construction of a new multi-storey faith facility.
* Nick March