ABU DHABI – In the United Arab Emirates, located in the Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam, an increasing Christian community made up of millions of foreigners has led to the emergence of a multi-cultural church.
The first visit Pope Francis pays to UAE – the first-ever by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula – draws attention to the little-known Catholic community mainly comprised of Filipinos and Indians, according to Vicar General of the Apostolic Vicariate of South Arabia, Troy de los Santos.
“I think the Catholic world does not realize we exist here, as a migrant church, of migrants,” the Filipino priest, who arrived in the UAE a decade ago, told EFE.
De los Santos offers masses in Filipino, English and Spanish at the Abu Dhabi St. Joseph Cathedral, which was inaugurated in 1983 and has now nearly 100,000 parishioners.
The Emirati government provided them the land and the facilities of the church, where they practice their rituals, De los Santos said at his office.
UAE is considered one of the region’s most tolerant countries, with Christians among the conservative Gulf monarchies that follow Wahhabism, an orthodox doctrine of Islam.
Although Emirati laws allow churches to be built, which cannot have crosses on their roofs or bell towers, there are no Christian places of warship in two of the country’s seven Emirates.
De los Santos highlighted that Christians are free to practice faith as long as they are inside the church, as it is forbidden in public spaces by law.
The only mass in Spanish is offered on the first Saturday of every month, which De los Santos considered enough for now, given that the Spanish-speaking community is not large.
The pope’s visit has also aroused the interest of hundreds of members of the Christian community who queued for a ticket allowing them to attend the mass he will offer on Tuesday in the Emirati capital.
A total of 135,000 people were expected to attend the mass and would be transported by over 2,000 buses provided by the local government.
During the visit, Francis, who is set to arrive Sunday, will meet Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE’s Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the presidential palace on Monday.
Later in the day, he is scheduled to hold a meeting at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center with Muslim Council of Elders, presided by Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb.