ABU DHABI // The UAE proclaimed its message of tolerance, hope and peace last night to a world confronting the darkness of militant extremism.
In Europe, many Christmas festivities were muted by a climate of fear after terrorist attacks last week in Germany and Switzerland.
In Iraq, a once vibrant Christian community of 1.5 million has been shattered by ISIL, many families driven out of their homes in the Nineveh plains to refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere.
Even in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, Israel has built metal barricades in Manger Square and its towering separation barrier divides the town from Jerusalem.
In Abu Dhabi, the message could not have been more different. Blinking red and green lights illuminated St Joseph’s Cathedral as thousands of Christians streamed into the courtyard to attend outdoor mass on Christmas Eve.
Christmas carols played over loudspeakers as festive worshippers posed for photos in front of a tall Christmas tree decorated with silver and blue ornaments, glowing in a white light near the entrance of the church complex. Others quietly lined up in front of a statue of Mary waiting their turn to solemnly place a candle and say a private prayer.
“Compared to all of the Middle East countries, I feel this country is more welcoming and that’s why there are so many expatriates here belonging to different religions, especially the Christians, the Catholics, and that’s why we have so many churches here because of the rulers’ foresight and tolerance and generosity,” said Fr Thomas Sebastian, secretary to the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, Paul Hinder.
At a time when so much of the world is experiencing extremism and bigotry, the UAE continues to be a beacon of tolerance, having even dedicated a Ministry of Tolerance to promote understanding and acceptance, Fr Sebastian said.
The UAE’s example sends a powerful message to the world, he said. “One of the important messages is of peace and tolerance and understanding and peaceful co-existence. That’s what we experience.”
Sister Carmen, a nun from India who has lived in the UAE for nine years and works at St Joseph’s School, appreciated the leaders’ acceptance of different faiths.
“They are tolerant, and permit us to have our service,” she said. Worshippers also celebrated Christmas at the neighbouring St Therese chapel, St Antony Coptic Orthodox Cathedral and St Andrew’s Church, home to the capital’s Anglican community.
“The message the UAE sends is we respect all religions,” said Sister Carmen “We are all one and the freedom that they have given us, we are really grateful for that.”
She helped to organise last night’s courtyard mass. “You see for 7.30pm mass, they’ve already started to take their seats and it’s only quarter to six,” the nun said.
More than 2,000 white plastic chairs had been arranged under a canopy, but by the time the first church service began at 7.30pm, many more worshippers stood lining themselves up in rows that filled the courtyard stretching to the pavement. To accommodate the demand, St Joseph’s offered additional Christmas Eve mass at 9.30pm and midnight, More services beginning at 4am would be held on Christmas Day.
“Sunday, we have 24 masses here, mostly in English, but we will also have it in 13 languages,” said Fr Sebastian. Most parishioners are from the Philippines and India.
The church estimates there are about 900,000 members of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes the Catholic Church in the UAE, Oman and Yemen.
In Oman there are four parishes and in the UAE there are eight parishes comprising about 700,000 parishioners, said Fr Sebastian.
For many expatriates in the capital, the church provides a home from home, said Romel Rebe, a 32-year-old Filipino.
“Christmas is very different here compared to the Philippines because you are with your family in the Philippines, here you are by yourself,” he said.
“It’s very important to come here to the church because at least you feel the spirit of Christmas even if you are away from your family.”
Fiona Paterson, a 54-year-old Briton who attended the service with her daughter, Louise, who was visiting her parents, was thankful she could continue her spiritual traditions in the UAE.
“We always do a Christmas Eve mass as a family,” said Mrs Paterson. “The real meaning of Christmas is to come here. I think it’s wonderful that the UAE allows us to practise our faith here.”