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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

The Pope's visit: The story of the Roman Catholic Church in the UAE

The visit by the Pontiff in February is the culmination of decades of work by pioneering priests, dedicated congregations and tolerance

St Joseph's church on Abu Dhabi's Corniche in 1965. Courtesy: St Joseph's
St Joseph's church on Abu Dhabi's Corniche in 1965. Courtesy: St Joseph's

Related: Pope Francis to make landmark visit to United Arab Emirates

Abu Dhabi, 1960. The winds of change are in the air. Oil had been discovered two years earlier and businessmen, oil company representatives, travelling salesmen and many more are surging into Abu Dhabi.

Many were Christians, not just from the West but also from places such as India.

This was a place where, for centuries, Islam had prevailed over Christianity. Yet from the start, it was clear that these new arrivals would be given freedom to worship.

That same year the first Roman Catholic mass was held in a private house in Abu Dhabi by a visiting priest from Bahrain.

The scattered Roman Catholic community across the different sheikhdoms were served by priests from there during this time.

In the years that followed, services were also held for Roman Catholics on Das Island and the oil exploration camps of Tarif to cater for the rising number of workers arriving there on the back of the oil boom.

But it was clear that somewhere more permanent was needed. Discussions began and Sheikh Shakhbut, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, agreed to donate land for the construction of a church.

In 1965, St Joseph’s opened on the Corniche. The Ruler even attended the opening. An early aerial photograph shows it standing alone, a cross above the door, surrounded by nothing by sand.

The location was close to where Nation Towers stands today. During the 1970s, the Vatican moved the See, or home, of the church in Southern Arabia from Aden to Abu Dhabi and the bishop took up residence in the city.

Oil, then, had set Abu Dhabi on a new trajectory. Sheikh Zayed became ruler in 1966, the country was unified in 1971 and he became president.

Construction of St Joseph's on Abu Dhabi's Corniche started in 1963, around the time this photograph was taken. Courtesy St Joseph's
Construction of St Joseph's on Abu Dhabi's Corniche started in 1963, around the time this photograph was taken. Courtesy: St Joseph's

The pace of growth was dizzying and larger development plans were put in place for the Corniche almost immediately.

This caused a dilemma as St Joseph’s could not expand to accommodate the rising numbers of worshippers. But Sheikh Zayed donated land in the Mushif neighbourhood, the Corniche church closed in 1983 and the new St Joseph’s opened in Mushrif where it still stands today.

But the story is not limited to Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, also granted land for a church in Bur Dubai and in 1967, the Church of the Assumption opened.

Sheikh Rashid even attended the blessing of the church. Dubai became an important trading hub and the numbers of Catholics swelled.

The original building was demolished and a larger church now known as St Mary’s opened by the late 80s on the same site.

Communities in more remote areas were also not ignored through these years.

Father Attilio Franceschetti, parish priest of St Michael's Church in Sharjah, conducted services in private houses on the east coast of the UAE during the 1970s.

He had to make the difficult journey across the country when there was little street light and animals regularly wandered across the road.

A rented villa then became home until the first church was consecrated in Fujairah in 2002.

The community in the UAE falls under the aegis of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which covers the UAE, Oman and Yemen and today, about 100 priests serve the more than two million Catholics across the Arabian Peninsula.

Inside St Joseph's Church on Abu Dhabi's Corniche. This was taken in the mid-sixties. Courtesy St Joseph's
Inside St Joseph's Church on Abu Dhabi's Corniche, taken in the mid-1960s. Courtesy: St Joseph's

It is believed at least a million of these live in the UAE with many from India and the Philippines. Worshippers are served by modern churches, even extending to Mussaffah, Jebel Ali and Al Ain. The signs of religious freedom are all around us, especially during the festive season when Christmas trees, carol services and the Christian ethos of giving are spread far and wide.

Paul Hinder is the Catholic Bishop for Southern Arabia.

“There is a deep understanding in our two religions, Christianity and Islam, that human life has to be protected, family life fostered, poverty overcome and justice and peace made the main concern of every political action,” he wrote in The National in 2016.

"I can give assurance – and I think I also speak on behalf of the other Christian churches – that we are willing to partake in building a just and peaceful society."

The planned visit by Pope Francis in February, then, is the culmination of decades work by the early priests, the first Catholics and the Rulers who allowed people far away from their home to worship in peace in a sign of the religious tolerance that continues to this day.

“The religious freedom we enjoy here is fantastic,” said Father Ani Xavier, parish priest of St Paul’s Church in Mussaffah.

"Everyone is respected. We are given land and the Rulers are excellent."

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