DUBAI: Christian residents here must count their blessings - including the freedom of worship in the UAE - more than their personal troubles in order to live the message of the season, said preachers in the run-up to Christmas.
"We are all just visitors, minorities here," the Rev Fr Tom Veneracion, the St Mary's Catholic Church parish priest, told a huge gathering during an open-air mass on a balmy winter Tuesday night. "We must be thankful we're allowed to celebrate like this," he said as he recalled pregnant Mother Mary's thankfulness during an encounter with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant. Catholics, estimated at 500,000 throughout the UAE, form the biggest number of Christians in the country.
Speaking to XPRESS, Fr Veneracion said: "We owe a debt of gratitude to the government here for their generosity, not only by giving us land for our churches but also the freedom to express our faith within it." Dubai is home to an estimated 350,000 Catholics.
"In our own small ways, we also hope we are contributing to its growth. When we teach people about faithfulness, honesty, diligence, patience, joy and hard work - when they find the inspiration to do their work - people become more productive. They also help themselves and their families," he said.
The same sentiment is echoed by Fr. Wild Gandalf, secretary of Bishop Paul Hinder, who is based in Abu Dhabi. "We feel very welcome here," said the 71-year-old Swiss prelate. "We as expatriates are grateful for the freedom to worship - because it's not the same in all countries in the Arabian Peninsula. The late Shaikh Zayed, founder of the UAE, had a very open policy towards the Christian churches, though the UAE is an Islamic country," added Fr Gandalf, who worked in Rome and Tanzania before coming to Abu Dhabi.
Fr Gandalf estimates they have a total of 100,000 parishioners in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. "We do thank the generosity of the rulers. They gave us the land, we need some more … hopefully we will get a new place in the near future," he said.
In community prayers, the congregation can be heard praying for long life and God's protection for the UAE rulers and their people.
That sense of gratitude among prelates comes naturally.
"All of us do appreciate the government support we enjoy here," said Fr Uni Xavier, who leads an eight-man clergy in Sharjah's St Michael's Church and looks after an estimated 50,000 members.
"When we requested street lights on the road leading to the church, the lights were up within a month. I think the UAE is a role model for religious tolerance. There are Catholic churches in five out of the seven emirates. We are praying to be given a place in Umm Al Quwain and Ajman, too. There's a strong hope in us that this will happen."
Christmas Day masses will be said in more than half a dozen languages in Sharjah, 12 languages in Abu Dhabi and several languages in Dubai. Jan Sliwa, 57, a visiting Swiss IT expert from Berne, said: "The religious freedom you enjoy here is encouraging. In Europe today, some are vehemently anti-religion. But the ways of science - experimentation - cannot give answers to the big questions, such as ‘What is the meaning of life?' or ‘Where can one find fullness of joy'?"
Dubai church-goers may encounter traffic and parking problems before the Christmas Eve high mass on December 24