Evangelizing Arabia: Parish life in Abu Dhabi

Candles religious freedom Credit Juthamat8899 Shutterstock CNA Juthamat8899 / Shutterstock.

On Tuesday, Pope Francis will visit St. Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi -- one of two total Catholic churches for the Arabian city with a population of 1.42 million.

While few in number, parishes in the United Arab Emirates are remarkably diverse and bring together Catholic traditions and devotions from across the Middle East, South Asia, and the rest of the universal Church.

In St. Joseph's Cathedral, for example, Masses are celebrated in Arabic, English, French, Filipino, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Urdu, Tamil, Konkani, German, Italian, Korean, Polish, and Ukrainian for its 100,000 expatriate parishioners.

St. Joseph's parish was the only Catholic church in Abu Dhabi for more than 50 years, until St. Paul's Catholic Church opened in the city's Musaffah district in 2015.

The new church's property spans 49,000 square feet and includes a three-story building that houses a multipurpose hall, a residence for priests, and meeting rooms.

Dario Mobini, a contributing editor for WorldYouthDay.com, visited St. Paul's a few months after its inauguration. Mobini told CNA that he found great hope in seeing so many people in the church's perpetual adoration chapel in a country where Catholicism is a minority.

"What an amazing concept to think that there is perpetual adoration going on in a church in the middle of Abu Dhabi," Mobini said. "There is a lot of hope that we can see in this small country in the Middle East."

Mobini also visited St. Mary's Catholic Church in Dubai, where he was impressed by the "very strong and active lively youth group."

St. Mary's hosted the first Catholic Youth Conference of Arabia, an initiative to create a greater sense of a united community among the peninsula's young Catholics.

Since 2009, the UAE has hosted two additional Arabian Catholic Youth Conferences (ACYC) in 2012 and 2018 with between 1,000 and 1,500 Catholics traveling from Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan to attend the "festival of faith" with Catholic speakers, authors, and musicians.

Mobini was joyfully surprised to be reunited with a group of about 100 young St. Mary's parishioners in Panama this year at World Youth Day.

"When I was in Panama, the group from the United Arab Emirates was excited to be there to celebrate their faith with others. It really was a sign of great hope due to the fact that maybe in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, you might not be able to see the beauty of the faith freely expressed in such a way that World Youth Day allows it to be," he said.

The Mass Pope Francis will celebrate Feb. 5 during his two-day trip to Abu Dhabi will make history as the first public outdoor Mass on the peninsula, where each country has restrictions on the freedom of worship.

"Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths said they could worship in private without government interference but faced restrictions on practicing their religion in public," according to the U.S. State Department.

The official religion of the United Arab Emirates is Islam with a Sunni Muslim majority. About 12.6 percent of the total population is Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. The focus of the pope's visit is interreligious dialogue, particularly with Islam, and includes a meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders and a visit to the great mosque of Abu Dhabi.

Mobini said that he hopes that "Pope Francis will be able to stir and shake the heart of men there so that we can build a community that really reflects the values of human dignity and human life."   

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