UAE awaits papal visit

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DUBAI, UAE, Jan 31, (AP): At St Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai, an effort to transcribe the Bible in the native tongue of its flock saw the holy book presented in 52 languages – a sign of the cosmopolitan welcome awaiting Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United Arab Emirates.

The diversity among its parishioners can be seen in its pews and heard in the sermons of St Mary’s priests, who celebrate Mass and offer prayers in Arabic, English, French, Tagalog, Tamil, Urdu and other languages. The church, they say, offers an anchor for the Roman Catholics among the UAE’s vast foreign labor force, many of whom live in this federation of seven sheikhdoms alone while their families stay home.

“The whole world meets here in a way,” said the Rev Lennie Connully, the parish priest of St Mary’s. “We have people from all over.” Pope Francis’ visit from Feb 3 through Feb 5 marks the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.

The pontiff will visit Abu Dhabi, the headquarters of the Catholic Church’s Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which covers the UAE, Oman and Yemen. There are nine Catholic churches in this federation of seven sheikhdoms governed by hereditary rulers; four other Catholic churches are in Oman.

The Catholic flock’s rapid growth followed the discovery of oil in what was previously known as the Trucial States. Officials consecrated the first Catholic church in Abu Dhabi in 1965. As Abu Dhabi became a major oil exporter and Dubai grew into the skyscraper studded city it is today, the Emirates’ rapid economic expansion drew millions of foreigners to everything from white-collar office jobs to hard-hat construction work. Of the over 9 million people now living in the UAE, around 1 million are Emirati while the rest are foreign-born.

In 2010, there were an estimated 940,000 Christians living in the UAE, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, including 750,000 Catholics. The report suggests the number of Christians in the UAE would rise to about 1.1 million by 2020, with Catholics making up the lion’s share. The Catholic Church itself believes there are some 1 million Catholics in the UAE today. The backbone of that population is Filipino and Indian. Life for them and others can be incredibly diffi- cult as many move to the UAE often leaving their families and loved ones back home. “The church is a base for them. They are far away from their homes,” Connully said.

“They don’t have an extended family to support them. That family atmosphere is created here.” Rulers in the UAE, which has described 2019 as the nation’s “Year of Tolerance,” have supported the Catholic community in the past by donating land for their churches.

However, there are limits in this Muslim nation. Proselytizing by non-Muslims remains illegal. Islam is enshrined as the UAE’s official religion in the country’s constitution, with government websites even offering online applications to convert. Conversion from Islam to another religion, however, is illegal, the US State Department has warned. Blasphemy and apostasy laws also carry a possible death sentence. At St Mary’s and other churches, crosses are for the most part carefully concealed behind compound fences. There are no bells that toll to mark the start of services, though loudspeakers on minarets proclaim the call to prayers, like at the mosque across the street from St Mary’s.

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