ABU DHABI: Thousands of Christians across the country attended the Christmas mass and service yesterday to mark the occasion of Christmas.

In Abu Dhabi, worshippers started gathering as early as 4am at the St Joseph’s Cathedral for the first mass. The grand mass at the church continued until 8.30pm where the service was held in a series of languages, including English, Arabic, Tagalog, Malayalam, Tamil, Sinhala, Spanish, Konkani, Korean, Polish, Italian and Urdu.

Dressed in their finest, worshippers offered prayers at various churches, including St Mary’s Church, St Thomas Orthodox Church and Holy Trinity Church in Dubai and St Michael’s Catholic Church in Sharjah.

They expressed immense appreciation for the UAE which gives them the freedom to observe and celebrate every kind of Christmas ritual. But they also missed their families and the festivities back home.

“Christmas is all about family get-togethers and today,14 members of my family — nine of them arrived in Abu Dhabi last week from back home — to celebrate Christmas with us,” said Lien Viola, 38, from the Philippines, who was at church with her entire family.

Viola said the nostalgia this year was not so acute as she had her family with her. “After prayers, we will head to Emirates Palace hotel, and later to the Heritage Village for a Christmas feast,” she told Gulf News. Viola has lived in Abu Dhabi for 12 years and works for a bank.

Speaking to Gulf News, Rev. Fr. Gandolf Wild, OFM Cap., vice-secretary at the St Joseph Cathedral, said, “We have gathered to pray and to ask Jesus Christ to forgive us and shower us with his mercy and [help us] lead our lives on the peaceful path of success and prosperity, and guide us to live together without friction and love each other as he [Jesus] love us.”

“In this church, people from all nationalities come to mark the day and there are over one million Christians in the UAE and some 80 per cent belong to our churches across the UAE,” he added.

St Joseph Church built on the Corniche on land gifted by Shaikh Shakhbout, who was present at the church’s inauguration, Father Gandolf said.

Subsequently, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan gifted land for a new church. St Joseph’s Cathedral was then moved to Mushrif from the Corniche in 1983, Father Gandolf said. Shaikh Zayed also gave land for another church to be built in Al Ain.

Father Gandolf praised the ever-present culture of tolerance in the UAE. “We are very happy living together, peacefully,” he said.

Emmanuel Lwanga, 28, from an expatriate from Uganda, said he felt doubly blessed as he was celebrating Christmas, which also happens to be his birthday.

“I am very lucky that I was born on Christmas Day so it’s a double celebration for me,” said Lwanga. “My family is back home and I miss them a lot.” He has been in the UAE for just over a year.

“It’s an amazing environment here and we appreciate the freedom to be able to celebrate our rituals. Truly, I feel happy to be a part of such a tolerant society,” Lwanga said.

Shazi George, 36, from Mumbai, India, said Christmas is an occasion to think good of others and treat each other well. “Today, we pray to God to guide us on the right path and guide those who have been misguided,” said George, who is from Al Ruwais in Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi emirate.