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Worshippers at the Evangelical Community Church in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: One of the UAE’s oldest churches, the Evangelical Community Church in Abu Dhabi, is celebrating 50 years of its establishment in the capital this weekend.

Speaking to Gulf News ahead of the event, senior pastor Dr Aubrey Sequeira said the momentous occasion speaks to the UAE’s pioneering role in promoting tolerance and grace.

UAE as a role model

“The UAE is today a world leader in promoting welfare and understanding among the many communities that call it home. It is a role model for the way it espouses freedom of worship, and shows hospitality to others who have different values and belief systems,” Sequeira said.

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Evangelical Church Director of Operations Cass O'Rear with government guests at the anniversary celebrations. Image Credit: Supplied

“Its leadership has created a cohesive society with people of many different backgrounds living together in harmony and this makes the country a pace setter. Over the past five decades, this has allowed us to practice our faith, and allowed the community to flourish.”

Established in 1972

The evangelical church was first in the capital in 1972. In fact, some of the first members of the evangelical community – Dr Pat Kenedy and Dr Marian Kennedy – are famous for having set up Abu Dhabi emirate’s first hospital in Al Ain, the Oasis Hospital, now known as Kanad Hospital.

The Kennedys were part of The Evangelical Alliance Mission, and their work in the UAE attracted two more mission members – Carl and Barbara Sherbeck – to the UAE. Carl Sherbeck was trained as a pastor, and when he moved to the UAE capital to assist the hospital with port-related processes, other evangelicals approached him to set up a prayer service.

“The community first began meeting in the Sherbeck’s living room, then rented out a storeroom for the services until 1974. Eventually, the community approached the Abu Dhabi leadership for a set of living quarters that could also be used as a place of gathering, and was granted a plot off Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street,” Sequeira said.

Growing community

The community continued to grow over the years, and upon another request, was granted a plot of land in 1990 to establish a church building. The Evangelical Community Church was finally opened in Al Mushrif Area in 1994. With the community continuing to grow, a larger building was developed on the same site in by 2009 to accommodate a growing number of worshippers.

Sequeira said more than 15,000 people visit the church every week, with services held in 16 other languages for various ethnic groups and congregations.

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The Evangelical Church has fostered a community of its own over the past five decades. Image Credit: Supplied

Freedom of worship

“We are so very thankful for the freedom of worship we have been granted in this land. We have a space to meet, and there are legal pathways for clergy to exist, which was further formalised with the creation of the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development in 2018,” the pastor said.

In fact, this tolerance of various faiths even allows the UAE to attract talent to its shores, and ensures that families feel safe and comfortable in their new home.

“Many members of the evangelical community first check, before moving to a new place, whether there is a church present. And it allows them to continue thriving. In fact, one of our oldest members has lived here since 1977, and continues to stay on as an investor.”

Crossroads between East and West

Sequeira himself moved to Abu Dhabi from the United States in 2017.

“I wanted to pastor a congregation, and was drawn to Abu Dhabi, which is in the crossroads between the East and the West. The previous pastor, Jeramie Rinne, was looking for someone to assist him, and I applied for the position. And when my wife and I arrived here, we were amazed by the community, and fell in love with the congregation,” he said.

After Rinne left, Sequeira was appointed as the church’s senior pastor in 2021.

Global impact

“It is not uncommon for many individuals and families when they leave Abu Dhabi, to share with us that the church and church community was the highlight of their time here, and they grew spiritually in ways they could have never imagined. This is another reason I chose to come here: the potential for global impact. Being involved in the spiritual formation of people from every nation, who are here in the UAE, who will then go out from here all over the world, more nourished in their faith, allows us the potential for global impact,” the pastor added.

50th anniversary

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Philippines Ambassador to the UAE and regular church attendee, Hjayceelyn M. Quintana at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the church. Image Credit: Supplied

As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, the church hosted a special event on Saturday, November 12 that was attended by community members and various dignitaries. A VIP pre-event also saw the presence of officials from the Ministry of Tolerance and Coexistence and the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development, as well as the attendance of Philippines Ambassador to the UAE and regular church attendee, Hjayceelyn M. Quintana. Former senior pastor Cam Arensen (1990-2015) was also present as the church traced its history, and looked ahead to the next 50 years.

The following day’s morning and evening services continued to celebrate the anniversary.