ABU DHABI // Thousands of worshippers flocked to St Joseph's Cathedral in the capital last night to mark Christmas Eve.
Dozens of cars lined side-streets and church-goers filled the courtyard, singing hymns and praying in unison as the sound of melodic carols and scripture readings drifted through the gathering.
"It is for the good of our body and soul," said Amarnath Bababulal, an Indian laundry worker, as he watched people lighting candles and praying near a statue of the Virgin Mary. They stood opposite a silver Christmas tree adorned with lights.
"The best thing is the unity. Different nationalities, African, Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, but here all are equal," he said.
"In the past few days we put up a lot of decorations," Father Gandolf Wild of St Joseph's Cathedral said before mass began. "We had Christmas trees and in the church outside, and lights, and of course the best vestments will be brought out and plenty of flowers will be there tonight."
The church set up 2,500 chairs for the outdoor mass, but many remained standing.
"Five thousand or more will come for a single service," said Father Gandolf.
The service was marked by the opening penitential rite, a rite of absolution, and a sermon by the parish priest.
"Most of our people here have no chance to go home for Christmas," said Father Gandolf. "They are all expatriates from dozens of nations."
Church-goers said they missed their families back home, but visiting the church allowed them to revel in the spirit of Christmas.
The church offers 22 different services in English, Arabic, Tagalog, subcontinental languages like Malayalam, Tamil and Urdu, and European languages like Italian, Polish, German and Spanish.
"They get the chance and that is what enriches our life here in the church, that we get people from many different traditions and customs," said Father Gandolf.
Father Gandolf said the ability to celebrate Christmas was a heartening proof of tolerance.
The celebrations unite Christians with their Muslim fellow residents but also distinguish them as a community.
Different communities should share their celebrations, "having common celebrations instead of each one going his own ways, to invite each other to share this joy because it is a feast of joy and happiness", he said.
Father Gandolf said the diversity of the UAE served to enrich the lives of those who lived in it. "I find people who come here, it opens their minds," he said. "People who stay in their home country all their lives often have a very narrow view and consider foreigners with a bit of suspicion, whereas, here, people learn that others are also good people."
"An open society - that is really the great thing here," he said.