BEIRUT, Lebanon — Catholics from around the world living in the United Arab Emirates are waiting with great anticipation for Pope Francis’s Feb. 3-5 visit, the first papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula.
“Pope Francis is the ambassador of peace, courageously crossing borders and fostering personal encounters with religious leaders, heads of states and humanitarian organizations in the Arab world,” said Father Johnson Kadukkan, parish priest at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, where Francis will stop for a private visit Feb. 5 before celebrating Mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
There are eight Catholic churches throughout the seven emirates of the UAE, with a ninth church under construction. Each church offers an extensive schedule of “weekend” Masses, all of which are full. Since the UAE is an Islamic country and Friday is considered a day of prayer for Muslims, Catholics attend weekend Mass on Friday or Saturday; Sunday is a workday.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, for example, has about 90,000 parishioners, with eight priests celebrating nearly 20 Masses during the weekend in various languages: Arabic, English, Tagalog, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Sinhalese and the Indian languages of Konkani, Malayalam and Tamil.
“The rulers of the UAE have been benevolent and tolerant, allowing us to practice our faith in the places of worship, and for this we are very thankful,” Kadukkan said.
Reflecting on the significance of Francis’s visit, Joseph Khadige, a Lebanese who has been working in the UAE since 1982, told Catholic News Service that Francis’s visit is “a sign from God. It is something we never thought would happen in our lifetime, for a pope to visit the UAE. The world should understand: This is not a small thing.”
Some people in the West confuse the UAE with Saudi Arabia, Khadige noted. “So, when we say that 70,000 people attend a single church, they might say ‘impossible,'” he said, in reference to the approximate number of parishioners at his parish, St. Michael’s in Sharja, an emirate close to Dubai.
On the contrary, Khadige said, “Here in the UAE, we practice our faith in full.”
From his experience, Khadige, general manager for an Italian global firm, has noticed that many Christians from the West who are lukewarm or practically atheists when they first arrive in the UAE as expatriate workers eventually are influenced by their active Christian peers.
“They see a lot of staff in their companies and organizations are going to church.” Little by little, he said, they are inspired to return to the church.
“They are now believers, and they are calling the priests to bless their house, to bless their children. And they enroll their children in catechism classes to be more active,” Khadige said, noting that in every church, there are around 5,000 children enrolled in such classes.
“It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about what is happening in a Muslim country,” he said.
Ed Magbag of the Philippines, a project manager with a design and engineering firm who has worked in the UAE for 14 years, notes that the UAE “is like a home away from home for all Christians.”
Parishioners of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, he and his wife are active in Couples for Christ, a global lay ecclesial movement, which has about 15,000 active members in the UAE.
Francis’s visit “will show the world that despite different cultures, races, religions and practices, there is respect, love and coexistence of all local people and expatriates in the UAE,” Magbag told CNS.
Magbag considers Francis’s visit to the UAE as “the best gift,” that “rekindles the fire in the heart of the faithful,” who are expecting spiritual nourishment.
Like many fellow Catholics in the UAE, the Magbags cut short their vacation to their homeland to be present in the UAE for Francis’s visit.
“This is one experience we must not miss,” he said. Many workers are asking for a day of leave for the pope’s Feb. 5 Mass at the stadium.
“Pope Francis symbolizes God’s presence on earth and so, when the Pope Francis is visiting the UAE, it is as if God is visiting his children in the Middle East, not only Christians, but our Muslim brethren as well,” Magbag added.
“Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” is the theme for this papal visit, taken from the opening words of the Prayer of Peace of St. Francis Assisi, from whom Francis has taken his name. The logo of the visit is a dove bearing an olive branch.
“Pope Francis is building bridges and creating an environment for peaceful dialogue to achieve peace and harmony globally,” Kadukkan told CNS.
“The UAE government has made huge strides by inviting Pope Francis to the country, and this is a step in the right direction to achieve tolerance, both within the Emirates as well as within the region,” the Indian priest told CNS.
The UAE government is organizing the visit with support from the Catholic Church.
Additionally, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president, has declared 2019 as the Year of Tolerance.
Approximately 1 million Catholics reside in the UAE as foreign workers, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.
They come from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, with the majority from India and the Philippines.