Photo Credit: Tony Gentile / Reuters
This week’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates by Pope Francis resulted in “extraordinary scenes”, the Senior Anglican Chaplain in Abu Dhabi, Canon Andrew Thompson, has said. During his visit, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. News reports cite a variety of numbers of those attending, varying from 130,000 to 180,000. Canon Thompson was one of those present. He told the Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS) that Anglicans and Roman Catholics have, for decades, “literally been neighbours” in the UAE “In every one of the emirates of the UAE, the Anglican churches lie literally in the shadow of the gigantic compounds which are the spiritual homes to thousands of Roman Catholics”, he said.
The UAE, which has designated 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance”, has the largest Catholic population amongst Arab nations. According to the Reuters news service, most UAE citizens are Sunni Muslims; but the large migrant population – foreigners are said to outnumber locals by around nine to one – means that the country is home to some two million Catholics - around half the total number of Catholics living in Gulf countries.
“Relationships are close between Catholic and Anglican ministers, not least because we all share the same status as guest migrants in a nation which proudly defines her status as Islamic”, Canon Thompson said. “This sounds as if we are bound together through the challenges of facing a hostile bureaucracy. The truth is actually the opposite.
“We both enjoy complete freedom of worship and the grace and favour of the ruling families. While there are certainly bureaucratic frustrations, a constant flow of pastoral needs, and legal conundrums, these issues are not unique to the UAE.
“We celebrate our friendship together by mutually hosting ecumenical gatherings, and are constantly cheered by the genuine welcome of the Emirati authorities.”
He said that this week’s “extraordinary scenes” in Abu Dhabi “have surpassed anything we have experienced in our shared journey together.” He added: “The sight of 130,000-plus worshippers gathering together for what is without question the biggest gathering of Christians ever seen in the history of the Arabian Gulf, reduced many of us to tears.
“The simple message of Pope Francis, who called the faithful to imitate Jesus in his life of compassion and humility, was profound. . .
“Anglicans rejoiced along with their Roman Catholic neighbours and this event has only served to strengthen our shared commitment with the UAE to push back against the global trends of intolerance and instead see a world marked by acceptance and fraternal love.”
During his visit, Pope Francis met with the Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque and University, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. The two leaders signed what was described as “a historic declaration of fraternity” which called for “peace between nations, religions and races”. The declaration was signed in front of an international gathering of invited religious leaders, representing Christianity, Islam and Judaism, as well as other faiths.
The UAE is in the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, part of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. Its Bishop, Michael Lewis, told ACNS that more than 15,000 Christians pass through the gates of St Andrews, the main Anglican church in Abu Dhabi, each weekend. “St Andrew’s, firmly established since the 1960s and recently refurbished, sits in a compound that gives hospitality and the opportunity for worship to many groups as well as the strong and multinational Anglican congregations”, he said. “Those groups range from Eastern Orthodox to Pentecostals. . .
“His Highness Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan, a widely respected member of the royal family who is currently the UAE’s Minister of Tolerance, is a frequent honoured visitor to St Andrew’s on significant occasions such as the church’s fiftieth anniversary and attends Remembrance Day most years.”
Elsewhere in Abu Dhabi, the congregation of St Thomas’ – a church plant in the desert garden city of al-‘Ain – is about to erect its first church building on land allocated by the government.
And in the suburb of Musaffah, near the bridges that lead to Abu Dhabi Island, a new 4,000-capacity All Saints Anglican Church is being built. Its halls and chapels will also be “at the service of Christians of other traditions as well as Anglicans” Bishop Michael said.