x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Al Ain church will rise out of the desert by year end

The St Dionysius Orthodox Church hopes to have a church building of its own by the end of the year after more than 30 years without a house of worship.

AL AIN // For nearly 40 years, the members of St Dionysius Orthodox church have gathered at homes, hospitals and during odd hours at nearby churches for services.

But by the end of the year, the congregation of 250 families will have its own worship space, a 1,000 square metre facility on land donated by the Government.

On a dusty, desolate parcel out past Bawadi Mall in the Mezyad district, a church styled using Indian and Arabic architecture will rise.

"From 1974, we have been working for this," said Dr Jacob George, a paediatrician and convener of the construction finance committee. "It is a great pleasure to us to know we will have our own place to worship."

The Indian Orthodox church's foundation stone will be laid on April 20 and the facility, including church and parsonage, is expected to be completed by December 15.

The church was allocated the plot in 2010 by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and approvals for the project were granted this year.

During a visit to the site last week, Father Saji Abraham, the parish priest, said he was humbled by the generosity of the emirate's rulers.

"We are very, very thankful to the leadership of Abu Dhabi," he said. "It shows how open-minded they are to be allowing freedom to all allegiances in a Muslim country. All have the freedom to worship."

St Dionysius will join three neighbouring churches near the same plot of land, all catering to Keralite worshippers.

The Dh13 million project is being funded by donations from members and local and international benefactors. Sister churches in other emirates have also been major contributors.

The church held its first service in Al Ain in 1969 as a branch of St George Orthodox cathedral in Abu Dhabi. Officially established in 1974 but not declared a parish until 2002, the church has grown to about 700 members.

In 2003, the church was the first to be named for Vattasseril Geevarghese Mar Dionysius, on the same day he was canonised a saint.

Worshippers currently gather at the parsonage for evening prayers and services and special events are held at other churches in the city, including St Mary's Catholic church.

The dedicated group of parishioners rarely choose their own hours, working around activities and services at their host churches.

"Of course we are grateful for their help, but we need our own space," said Dr George. "It was difficult to work around the timings of the other churches or to travel to Abu Dhabi to worship all the time. This will make all the difference."

Father Abraham and members of the construction committee said they hoped that their new white, gold and copper church helps build up the congregation.

"I'm very, very proud, very, very happy and very, very anxious," said Alexander George, one of the parish's longtime members. "We think we will see our congregation grow to 1,000 or 2,000 people after the church is complete."

St Dionysius will have three altars and will be able to accommodate 1,200 in the church.

A separate 2,000-person auditorium and assorted other buildings are also part of the long-term plan and will be constructed in several phases.

Father Abraham had a simple response when asked how he will preside over the first weddings and baptisms in St Dionysius's own church. "With a smile," he said.