Copts in the UAE say they feel at home in a country characterised by religious tolerance, compared with violence seen elsewhere in the region against Christians and other minorities.
Coptic community feels at home in the UAE
ABU DHABI // When he first arrived in the UAE in 1977, Ashaia Haroun was on a five-year contract. Back then, he did not expect to stay the full five years.
Nearly 38 years later, the deacon at St Antony Coptic Orthodox Cathedral said he, like many other Copts, feels at home in a tolerant country.
The 69-year-old has been amazed watching the Coptic community grow from about 30 families when he arrived to thousands of them today. It is not what he had expected to happen when he arrived .
“It was a dream,” he said.
The congregation at St Antony’s is said to be the oldest in the UAE, with a church established in 1984.
The 3,334-square-metre cathedral was inaugurated in 2007. Presently, about 3,000 to 4,000 people regularly attend mass at St Antony.
There are seven Coptic Orthodox churches in the UAE, with others in Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah and one under construction in Ras Al Khaimah.
Copts, the largest Christian denomination in the region, celebrate Christmas on January 7, along with most Orthodox churches. Egyptians comprise the vast majority of St Antony’s congregation, which includes some Sudanese. A 43-day Lent is celebrated prior to Christmas.
The Coptic Church is one of the oldest in Christianity, started by St Mark 68 years after the birth of Jesus, according to Father Bishoy, a priest at St Antony since 2004, who hails from Alexandria.
Mass is conducted in a mix of Arabic and Coptic; a service in English is planned.
The church also draws upon Copts’ unique musical tradition and worships with more than 3,000 hymns, with specific tunes for festivals such as Christmas.
Copts in Abu Dhabi feel welcome in the UAE, particularly in view of the violence against Christians and minorities occurring in the Middle East, according to Father Antonios, also a priest at St Antony, who has been in the emirate since 2007.
“We feel that we are at home here. We are not feeling that we are strangers,” said the native of Cairo.
Father Bishoy said the Church was continuing to pray for the welfare of Christians in the region.
“We are very sorry for what’s been happening right now in many countries – the discrimination and, sometimes, old religious beliefs about killing people and being tough and aggressive,” he said.
“This is not, for sure, from any religious principle.”
The priests believed that prayers could help to stop the bloodshed, he said.
“We will continue praying for peace, especially during this nice and holy period of Christmas,” Father Bishoy said.
Mr Haroun said he was thankful for the UAE leadership who helped to finance the building of the cathedral and allocated for its use a piece of land that previously was used as a parking lot for the neighbouring mosque.
“They show us the meaning of religious tolerance,” he said.
Mr Haroun said he believed the effect of religious tolerance went beyond simply allowing people of different faiths a place to worship.
Time was also devoted to discussing issues such as health care and the environment, instead of religious differences, he said.
“It encourages us when we work here to give the best effort, because practising religion in the UAE is far easier than in many countries,” he said.