When Pope Francis came to the UAE earlier this month, he was visiting a thriving Catholic community. Here we are blessed with Catholic churches covering all of the seven emirates and a cathedral in Abu Dhabi. Dubai has two parishes; St Mary’s, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and has a good claim to be the largest single parish in the world, sits on the edge of the old city, before the glitzy lights and towers along Sheikh Zayed Road.
All Catholics here are among the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers who comprise the backbone of the UAE’s service and construction industries. The largest groups are Filipinos, whose English skills lead to jobs in shops and restaurants and as nannies, and South Indians and Sri Lankans, many of whom build the towers and malls that this country is famous for. Their shift patterns can make it hard to get to Sunday Mass, so there is a dispensation that the obligation is satisfied by attendance on Friday and Saturday.
At St Mary’s, there are 20 Masses in English during the three-day period. From early morning until late at night, the area is gridlocked with families in their 4x4s, labourers’ buses and vast streams of people coming from the metro. Meanwhile, many liturgies are celebrated in regional tongues from South Asia and the Philippines: Konkani, Malayalam, Tamil, Sinhalese, Urdu and Tagalog.
Islam is the state religion; public displays of other faiths are not prohibited. There are many individual prayer groups and retreats. Relations with other religious groups are very friendly: the Sikhs, for instance, provide crowd control for us at Easter. The Islamic calendar gives shape to the year, the week and the day in ways directly analogous to life in a devoutly Catholic country. Daily, I am reminded that the adhan, the calls to prayer, act to my friends and colleagues as the Divine Office does to many back home.
The biggest enemy of faith in the UAE, as in much of the Gulf, is not other religions but materialism. Many Westerners have access to credit lines that they would not have back home: witness the flash cars on driveways and weekend trips to the Maldives, only a few hours away.
Foreign labourers usually earn enough to remit some money home each week, but even then they have access to pleasures unavailable in their rural homelands. For all, the temptations to spend are very high, particularly as Dubai markets itself across Africa and Asia as a premium shopping destination. I came back one New Year to see signs and bright lights festooning the city for the celebration of “DSF”. I wondered which religion celebrated such a festival, before I realised it was a shopping festival.
Indubitably, the Catholic community here has been buoyed by the Pope’s historic visit. In particular, for many Catholic Arab expatriates, who hail from the Levant and Maghreb, the Pope has kindled better relations with their hosts. It may herald a welcome fresh chapter in the relations between the two largest monotheistic faiths.