Sharjah: It’s the quest for spiritual solace or the desire to share their joys and sorrows that drive hundreds of people belonging to the Russian Orthodox faith to flock to the church here.
Since opening its doors to the Russian Orthodox Church last year, the Saint Philip Apostle Orthodox Complex has become a pillar of support in the expatriate community, say church leaders.
Hundreds of worshippers spill into the church weekly not only to reaffirm their faith but to firm up deeper affiliations with fellow church goers from across the former Soviet Union.
“People come here to find support, whether it is religious or from other church goers. There are people who are going through personal problems or maybe they lost their jobs, so they come here for a helping hand from people in their community and together, we try our best to help each other,” said Marina Aksenova, who works as a secretary at the church and also participates in the choir.
“After the service, which lasts for one hour and a half, I have a sense of calmness in me. It is also a place where you can find a friend and a shoulder to lean on. The experience of being in a choir is one that I love because there are no instruments involved, and all you hear are the voices of the four choir members,” said Aksenova.
The 1,800 square metre complex can accommodate up to 3,000 worshippers and is the largest Russian Orthodox Church in the region, and the first in the UAE. There are approximately 20,000 Russians living in the UAE who are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. A priest, Father Pavel, said hundreds visit the church every week.
The church caters to about three weddings a month and offers baptisms three times a week. “People from across the country have visited us, but the majority of them are from Dubai and Sharjah. When there is a special occasion, it is comforting to know that you can still practise your religion in the same way that you would back home,” said Father Pavel.
Located in Al Yarmook area in Sharjah, the church’s five blue domes stand apart. Its gold gilded cross is quick to attract the attention of pedestrians as the sun’s rays reflect on it. Russian speaking tourists also have made the church a point of interest when visiting Sharjah, as the destination has already made its mark in guide books.
Construction on the project started in September 2007 after His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, allotted the land to the Russian Orthodox community. The church was financed by a prominent businessman, Yuri Sidorenko, who serves as chairman of the EDAPS Consortium and warden of the Saint Philip Apostle Orthodox Complex.
“A part of the main function of the church is to serve as an educational and social centre, and by the beginning of July, we plan to have an exhibition of religious paintings that will be imported straight from Russia,” said Yuri Kirs, one of the architects of the church.
Kirs, who hails from Saint Petersburg, is on a five-year contract with the project and is constantly working on bringing new features at the centre. He said the centre offers religious classes in addition to language courses for children. The courses cater to children who were born in the UAE and are not that fluent in the Russian language.
“When I was working on the designs, I based the drawings on one of the churches in Saint Petersburg. The layout and the architectural structure is almost identical, and I ensured that there would be ample space for a living quarter, gatherings and classrooms,” he said, explaining that there are three priests and a family living on the premises.
Inside, one of the walls is adorned with images of religious icons hanging in ornate golden frames. Called the Wall of Icons, it separates the church from the altar.
The wall is made of Indian teak wood, carved and plated with gold leaf in the UAE. Each of the icons was painted in Moscow and brought to Sharjah. Father Pavel said one of the smaller silver and gold plates costs $10,000 (Dh36,500), and is enclosed in a glass case in front of the alter.
Before you make your way out, lift your head skywards and you will be left with a lasting impression of a large painted fresco adorning the high domed ceiling with four smaller frescoes of Jesus Christ’s apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.