Spirit of Christmas is alive in the UAE
By Quay Evano Dubai, UAE -- For a devout Catholic Filipino like Cristy Atendido, Christmas won’t be complete without attending the traditional “simbang gabi” or midnight mass and completing all nine days of it. So, when she left the Philippines to work as an Overseas Filipino Worker in the Middle East last year, it was one of the things she thought she won’t be able to do since she was going to the world’s region of the Islamic religion. But last December she was able to go to the midnight mass although wasn’t able to complete it. This year, she is focused on completing it and last night she was able to attend the first celebration of the simbang gabi. By the way, she’s still in the Middle East. Cristy is just one of the hundreds of thousands of Catholic Filipinos and millions of Christians who are fortunate to be allowed to practice their faith in a Muslim country, which is a very rare occurrence especially in a war-torn region like the Middle East, where people of different religions and even of the same religion fight and kill each other in the name of God. Cristy lives and works in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, hailed around the world for its religious tolerance and interfaith openness. It is perhaps the only Islamic nation in the Gulf with the most Catholic churches, a total of seven (7): St. Mary’s Church (Dubai), St. Francis of Assisi Church (Jebel Ali, Dubai), St. Joseph’s Church (Abu Dhabi), St. Mary’s Church (Al Ain), St. Michael’s Church (Sharjah), Church of Mother of Perpetual Help (Fujairah), and St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church (Ras Al Khaimah). The church in Abu Dhabi is the UAE headquarter of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia which is being overseen by Bishop Paul Hinder O.F.M. Cap. Masses are held everyday and most churches have mass celebrations in different languages like English, Arabic, French, Malayalam (South Indian language), Tamil, Urdu (Pakistani language) and Tagalog. Majority of the Catholics and other Christians in the UAE are from the Philippines and South India and the others would be from European countries like the United Kingdom, Italy, and France and Gulf countries like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. People of different faiths and religions work and live in peace and harmony in this open Islamic city and even celebrate each other’s important religious festivals. Christians greet Muslims “Eid Mubarak” during Ramadan, Eid Al Adha and Eid Al Fitr and greet Hindus “Happy Diwali” and “Happy Onam” during their festival of light. Muslims and Hindus in turn greet Christians “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Easter”. This is an amazing contrast to neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, the seat of Islam, where celebrating even having a cross ornament could bring one to jail or in Iraq where Sunni and Shiite Muslims are engaged in an endless bloodshed. It is only Qatar which has lately allowed the construction of Christian churches in its city. Christmas is widely celebrated in the UAE as malls, hotels and other business establishments put up Christmas decorations all over the city. Christmas carols waft through the air and business establishments cash in on the Christmas fervor by offering endless sales. Although there are still minor restrictions like churches are not allowed to have a cross structure on its façade (but other Christian symbols are allowed in the interior) and proselytizing, the UAE has showed the world that in diversity, there could be some form of unity wherein peaceful living could be achieved. The country’s leaders from the ruling family of Dubai, the Maktoums and the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, the Al Nahyans, have been called visionaries not only for making their country one of the richest countries in the world in only a span of 37 years, but for their vision of creating a society wherein Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people from other religions could live as one without hatred and fear. It is actually the late leader of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum who donated the land where St. Mary’s Church was built and donated funds for its completion. Most of the priests in the seven Catholic churches in the UAE are from India and the Philippines. St. Mary’s Parish Priest is Father P.M. Peter and its famous Filipino priest is Father Zacarias Parra who is endearingly called Father Zaki by most parishioners. Along with other priests and sisters, they are responsible for holding masses and other Christian services like baptisms, weddings, catechisms and confessions. As thousands and thousands of Filipinos arrive in the UAE daily, the churches have become a refuge for OFWs as they fight homesickness and loneliness and live with the everyday struggles of living in a foreign land. Especially now as Christmas approaches, homesickness is at an all time high. But the “simbang gabi” keeps Filipinos and other Catholics with the renewed vigor and optimism they need to survive another year of being away from their loved ones. After hearing the midnight mass, they are even treated to “kakanin” being sold by fellow Filipinos. There are bibingka, suman and other Filipino native delicacies being sold inside and outside the church premises, really making Dubai and the other emirates their home away from home. For Cristy, she said, the only thing missing is to see small children singing Christmas carols in the streets and houses and to have her one and only son Adrian, a college student back home, to be with her this Yuletide season. But aside from this, she feels that the spirit of Christmas and the Catholic faith is very much alive in the UAE.
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