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Christians in the Muslim World

Dubai, St. Mary's parish: diary of incredible vitality

In the occasion of my nomination as auxiliary bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia, many people asked me: «What will you do in those countries? There aren't any Christians». Were someone to stop by on Friday or better yet, during Holy Week at St. Mary's Church in Dubai, they would immediately be convinced of the opposite and would become witness to a vibrant church made up of Christians from a hundred countries, especially from India and the Philippines.


Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), has become the most important commercial centre in the region. According to data from 2003, the UAE's population is 3,150,000. Christians make up 35% of the population with 1,100,000 people, of whom 900,000 are Catholic. 29% of the population lives in Dubai. If this information is correct then there are nearly 300,000 Catholics in Dubai, many of whom are non-practising or rarely so. All the Christians are immigrants there for work reasons. Among them are many Arab-speaking Catholics who come from the Christian minorities of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq.


St. Mary's Church in Dubai is the largest parish in our vicariate. For several years now, there has been a second parish in Jebel Ali (about 30 km from Dubai city), in a developing zone. However, here I will only speak about the parish of St. Mary. As in the other Emirates, Dubai's Christians enjoy freedom of religion within the walls of the parish complex which includes: the largest church in the Middle East (2,000 person capacity), the parish house with adjacent spaces for activities, the house of the Combonian nuns and the large school run by them, with nearly 2,300 students (76% Christian). In the same city the Daughters of Mary the Immaculate of Baghdad run another school with more than 1,700 students (95% Muslim).


The pastoral care of the parish is entrusted to the parish priest and four clergymen, all of them Capuchins (three Indians, one Philippine and one Lebanese). Since Friday is the Muslim day of rest, Sunday mass is not only held on Sunday, but also Thursday evening and Friday. These are the most attended masses. Those who want to participate in the mass have to come to St. Mary's Church. There the faithful form a crowd every week that any European parish would envy. In high times, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, the crowd is dramatic. In 2004 I presided over the mass of the Holy Dinner on Holy Thursday: the faithful did not just fill the church, but also the school rooms, the square in front of the church and the sports fields behind the church. From these positions they followed the celebrations on large screens. I have been told that there were at least 30,000 people present. English is the lingua franca. However, there are regular services in Arabic, Malayalam, Tamil and other languages.



Limited spaces


So large and complex a parish cannot be run just by the priests. Its vitality is largely due to the nuns and to the immense number of men and women who use their charisma in service to the church. Catechism for children (in 2003 there were 4,300) takes place Thursday and Friday. Furthermore, a group of volunteer catechists and nuns prepare the children for their First Communion (in 2003 there were 600) and Confirmation (450 in 2003). Associations and prayer groups (Couples for Christ, Legio Mariae, etc.) are also very numerous and active. A training course is organised every year for their leaders. Many of the faithful give their time and services to the church (chorus, altar boys, cleaning, guards, etc.)


This is an Islamic country. For this reason all public religious activities must take place within the church walls and in parish spaces. Since space is limited, it is inevitable that there are conflicts, due to the large and diverse number of the faithful. It is as if all the public religious activities in Milan had to take place inside the Cathedral and adjacent spaces. There would immediately be problems: who can use a particular space, what day, what time, for how much time. If we add the fact that there are people of different nationalities, different languages and rites, one can understand that it is not always easy to control the situation.


But apart from these problems which are to be expected in a multicultural and multiracial parish, there is an incredible faith here. For many believers, St. Mary's Church is an essential reference point for their Christian identity: here they pray together, they meet, they encourage one another, and when there is need, they help one another. It is true that ethnic or linguistic groups tend to meet amongst themselves, but the reality is that this is a church in which one experiences catholicity in a manner which is impressive for anyone who comes to Dubai for the first time.


St. Mary's Church is a stable reference point for the pilgrim population. Few Christians remain in Dubai all their lives. They are impeded not just by the immigration laws, but also by the desire to go to another country (Australia, Canada, the USA, Europe) or to return in their own country. Within this "passage" on a rotating international platform, the Church helps Christians not to lose the essential: Jesus Christ. But, despite the large crowd of faithful who participate in the liturgy, worship and meetings in the Dubai parish, we cannot hide the fact that too many Christians are losing faith because of the lack of pastoral care (necessarily limited) and the seduction and pressure coming from other religious groups and from Islam. The words of Jesus to Simon Peter are, in Dubai, a challenge not just to pastors, but also to every believer: «But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not. . . strengthen thy brethren» (Lk 22, 32).