RAS AL KHAIMAH // About 8,500 worshippers from across the country attended the first mass at the emirate's new Catholic church yesterday.
It was one of the biggest ever turnouts, with residents travelling from across the country despite the summer heat for the consecration of the Saint Anthony of Padua Church in Jazirat Al Hamra.
Residents from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, many of whom had taken the bus with family and friends, arrived an hour before the 10am mass to find a place in the 1,200-seat basement auditorium.
Hundreds of others queued up in the aisles, sat on the staircase and stood in the shaded grounds to listen to the prayers and hymns being relayed on a large screen.
Thomas Matthew, from India, had taken a bus with 31 other residents of Abu Dhabi to attend the inauguration.
"It is our pleasure to be here," said Mr Matthew, who normally attends Friday mass at St Joseph's Church.
"We have the Holy Father's representative here from Rome. I could not miss the opportunity of being at the consecration of a church."
The ceremony was led by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for Evangelisation of Peoples at the Vatican; Archbishop Petar Rajic, Apostolic Nuncio to the Arabian Peninsula, and Bishop Paul Hinder, from the UAE."I was a little bit afraid when I saw the plan of this church," said Bishop Hinder. "I thought it was big for Ras Al Khaimah, but at least today it is too small."
Thecongregation was welcomed by Cardinal Filoni, who gave a message from the Pope, after which worshippers sang with the choir the hymnPraise to the Lord.
"This is a historic moment," said the Cardinal. "It is a wonderful day, the day God prepared for us."
He reminded parishioners about living in harmony.
"We come from different nationalities, but here we are as one."
The Dh18.5 million complex has been built on land that was donated by the RAK government to the community in 2007.
The 7,000 Catholics in the emirate had been attending mass, conducted in English with occasional services in Malayalam, Tagalog, Tamil, Konkani, Arabi and Sinhalese, at a chapel in Al Nakheel, built in 1999.
The rapid growth in the Christian population in the country, especially the Northern Emirates, prompted the community to start building a bigger church in 2011. About 30 kilometres away from the main city, it is accessible through direct routes from Umm Al Quwain, Ajman and Sharjah.
To beat the traffic, Joy Fernandes, who had driven in from Sharjah, parked a mile away and hurriedly walked in with his wife and 7-year-old daughter a few minutes before mass began. "Our faith brought us here today," said Mr Fernandes. "In Goa, where I come from, we have a St Anthony of Padua Church."
He said the church was easy to get to from Sharjah. "It is a good option for us."
Matthew Santosh, a volunteer who worked for two months to help organise the event, said he expected the church to get very busy.
"Most of the other churches are very busy and are finding it hard to accommodate everyone," said Mr Santosh, who lives in Sharjah.
"So many people will want to come here because it is big."
The church canhold about 2,000. The accommodation for the clergy and support staff are on-site,as are additional activity halls.
Jojo Quintal, from the Philippines, was not expecting the rush of visitors.
"This church looks three times bigger than the old one here," said Mr Quintal, who lives in RAK.
Thierry Sueur, a French national who has been living in RAK for six years, said he was surprised at how quickly the church was built.
"It is great that the country is so tolerant of all faiths and welcomes people from all over the world to live and work here."
Father Mathew Fernandes, who heads the church, ended by thanking the rulers of RAK for their support."RAK is not small. In the middle of the desert the house of God has come up."