ABU DHABI // The head of Abu Dhabi's Coptic church has thanked Muslims who took part in its Christmas celebrations for their show of mutual understanding and respect in the face of recent religious conflict in Egypt.
Esehak Anba Bishoy, priest of St Antonious Coptic Orthodox Church, said that although Muslims always attended the January 7 Christmas ceremony, more than usual did so this year.
"They usually always come, but they didn't used to light the candles," he said. "Yesterday they did, and in public. It was nice participation, to see how much they cared, especially after what happened last year in Egypt."
On October 9, violent clashes broke out in Egypt when thousands of Coptic Christians marched to the state television building to protest against the burning of a church. The clashes left 26 dead and hundreds injured.
Father Bishoy said he received condolences from many officials in the UAE during that time, including the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash.
"[Officials] in the UAE have always joined us in the good times and the bad times," he said. "They would come to every celebration we had and also share the sadness we had. The tolerance in the UAE is beyond tolerance in many other countries for religion."
He said the UAE's interfaith policy allowed followers of any religion to practise freely. "They have only been kind to us," he said. "They gave us land and helped build this church. Their tolerance is only increasing with time."
Before the church was built in 2007, Coptic Egyptians - of whom there are more than 15,000 in the country - held services in rooms rented by the hour from Anglican churches.
"They [UAE officials] would see us come and pray peacefully, they saw how we had a large presence, and had no political agenda, just came together to worship, and that we respect the laws of the country, so they gave us land," he said.
"And they did not settle for just one in Abu Dhabi, they let us have a church in other emirates: in Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, and now we are building one in RAK."
He said the amount of land and the building they were given was a sign of the "extent of kindness and greatness in the leaders' hearts".
"They could have given us a small piece of land, but this is actually the biggest cathedral in the UAE, it has four floors," he said.
"Having this church means a lot to Coptic Egyptians. It means they can be one with society and no longer isolated."
Delegates from the West have often visited Father Bishoy to ask about his relations with Muslims and how he has been treated in the UAE.
"We were visited by the US congress before, we would always tell them how wonderfully they are treating us here, as members of the society," he said. "Which just shows how much they are observing human rights here."
On Saturday night the church was filled not only with Coptic Christians, but also Muslims and senior UAE officials for a feast and the accompanying festivities.
Ali Al Hashimi, a religious and judicial adviser at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, gave an opening speech, followed by the Egyptian Ambassador to the UAE, Tamer Mansour, who wished everyone a merry Christmas on behalf of the Egyptian military.
Asheya Ameen, a 66-year-old Coptic Egyptian who lives in Abu Dhabi, said the celebrations made it clear that religion transcended sectarian beliefs or ethnicity.
"I came here 35 years ago, and I stayed this long because of the tolerance and peace here," he said.
"Muslims joining in the lighting ceremony just reflected the light in their heart and tolerance they had. We are peacefully [coexisting] with them here."