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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

For the vicar of Abu Dhabi, helping the needy and survivors of sexual abuse are his calling

In a career spanning decades, Andrew Thompson has supported the poor and the destitute 

Canon Andy Thompson is one of the faces of the UAE's proud tradition of religious tolerance. Silvia Razgova / The National
Canon Andy Thompson is one of the faces of the UAE's proud tradition of religious tolerance. Silvia Razgova / The National

It is not unusual for sexual abuse victims, unpaid labourers or domestic servants to turn to places of worship for sanctuary. Still, Canon Andrew Thompson was taken aback a few months ago when a Ugandan woman was found clinging to St Andrew’s Church altar in Abu Dhabi, crying out to God for protection.

“She escaped from a sex trafficking gang. And the thing that was really frightening her was that the traffickers told her: ‘If you run away, we are going to use black magic,’" Canon Thompson recalled.

The vicar called in the police. The victim was moved to an Emirati women’s shelter during the investigation and court hearing, and the Anglican church subsequently helped to arrange her flight home. Before her departure, UAE authorities returned the woman’s fingernail clippings and a lock of hair held by the gang, so she no longer had to live in fear of a black magic curse.

“They didn’t have to do that. But the UAE police went out of their way in this particular case to make her feel safe,” Rev Thompson said.

It is an extraordinary tale, but sex trafficking is not unique to the UAE or indeed to the UK, where Rev Thompson was born and was ordained as an adult in 2000. He has counselled some of the world’s poorest during a 30-year career of charitable and religious work in Britain, Jordan and Kuwait. In the UAE, he has been pastor of St Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi since 2010.

He spoke to The National as he prepared his Easter address, and sought to raise money for a new church in the Mussaffah area.

When we meet, just before Easter, however, it is not in the sanctuary of St Andrew’s but in Mayfair, central London, a short walk from the Ritz Hotel. With Easter approaching and Rev Thompson’s 50th birthday approaching in June, he is in a reflective mood.

Rev Thompson was born with a hearing impairment, but he reads lips and patiently answers questions about his spiritual journey from England to the UAE, and life as a Christian in a country where 76 per cent of the population is Muslim and Islam is the official religion.

“Yes, I live in a Muslim majority country and yes, we are a very small percentage of the population, a religious minority, but we are not persecuted. We are not treated as second-class citizens. Quite the contrary. We are given a very visible profile and we are involved in international conferences, sometimes at the government’s expense, to represent the Christian community in the UAE,” he said.

 Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates -  Reverend Andrew Thompson lead the Christmas mass service, which marks the 60th anniversary of the first Anglican service in Abu Dhabi in December 1957, and was commemorated on December 17, 2017 at St. Andrews Church. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
Andrew Thompson leads the Christmas mass service in December 2017 at St Andrews Church in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

The church was his calling from an early age. Rev Thomson was born in Crawley, in south-east England. After studying behavioural sciences and Islamic communities, he moved to Jordan in 1990 to work with Palestinian youth and later to Dubai as an Anglican church youth worker.

He married in 1994, trained as a church of England priest in the UK, and moved back to the Middle East, moving between Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and then to Kuwait in 2006, where he was the chaplain of the local parish of St Paul’s.

Rev Thompson was awarded the MBE in 2011 – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to human rights and promoting interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims while working in Kuwait.

Since 2010, however, his home has been in Abu Dhabi, where it is estimated that several hundred thousand Christians live, many from India, Nepal and the Philippines. Christians make up 9 per cent of the UAE residents.

Rev Thompson’s Anglican congregation of several hundred worshippers includes many professional expats, but he is also on the front line helping Abu Dhabi’s most disadvantaged and operating as the interface between Anglican faithful and the Muslim community.

A chaplain’s role is not just about spiritual needs, however. When we meet, Rev Thompson has a much more worldly problem on his mind: money.

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He is hoping to build the region’s largest Anglican church in Abu Dhabi. Construction is under way on land in Musaffah donated by the President, Sheikh Khalifa, a testament to the UAE’s multicultural tolerance. More than 40 congregations operate in the region with the support of the UAE government.

Rev Thompson’s new church is to be called All Saints, but the problem is that it is only 60 per cent complete. A key donor pulled out several years ago and Rev Thompson needs to find almost Dh25 million to finish construction.

“We’ve hit a bit of a bump due of finance. We were hoping to get a commercial loan from the local banks,” he said.

The church is praying for either a commercial investor or an outpouring of donations.

When construction is finished, All Saints will be able to accommodate several thousand worshippers at a time, so in theory it could provide a spiritual home for other Christian denominations to also carry out their worship services, hosting 40,000 people in 12 hours.

More than 50 groups and about 15,000 people now use St Andrew’s Church to worship, including Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic Orthodox, the Korean Methodist Church and the Church of Pakistan. A similar arrangement is envisioned for All Saints Church.

The Anglican church was originally hoping to host All Saints Church’s at the weekend with an Easter service. Instead, the deadline came and went without much fanfare.

Rev Thompson remains hopeful despite the setback.

His Easter message on Sunday was uplifting, focusing on the call of the church to be a "resurrection people" rather than a people focused on injustice and death.

"We look with hope to overcome and transform bad news into good news," he says.