In little more than 50 years, Abu Dhabi – capital of the United Arab Emirates – has become a glittering, cosmopolitan metropolis of commerce, government and culture. Tens of thousands of expatriate Christians from all over the globe have also come to live, work and worship here, as Canon Andrew Thompson explains.
St Andrew’s Anglican Church began because of the discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi. Before oil, life in what used to be known as the Trucial States was incredibly tough. Local people endured brutal summer heat and survived through pearling, fishing and farming dates and figs from the deep desert oasis. The only Christians who came here were medical missionaries on tour with the American Arabian Mission.
Oil changed everything. Suddenly there was a massive demand for skilled labour, and expatriates poured in from all over the world. From a sleepy fishing village, Abu Dhabi is now one of the world’s most sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities. The locals enjoy an estimated GDP per capita of $240,000. Gleaming high rise buildings with the most luxurious cars on the planet dot the landscape of the city. Yet amidst all the glamour, the high profile sporting events and rock concerts, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that we are living in a conservative Islamic society. Mosques abound on every corner, and the call to prayer sets the rhythm of the day.
St Andrew’s Church began when the oil company appointed an Anglican Chaplain to take care of the spiritual needs of the oil workers. In 1968 the first church was built on the beach and there it stayed until it was relocated to the centre of Abu Dhabi island in 1984. From its humble origins as a ministry where the chaplain travelled from Abu Dhabi to visit oil workers on rigs and off-shore islands and on land in the UAE and Qatar, the church is now home to more than 10,000 worshippers every week.
Christians from every tradition and nation rub shoulders as back-to-back services fill the compound every Friday. From Ethiopian Orthodox drumming, through to the rhythmic clapping of Indian Pentecostals and the sonorous singing of the Koreans it is amazing to see how living in an Islamic country has done the imaginable … bring Christians together to share a space for worship.
In the same neigbourhood, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical American Church, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church and the Indian Syrian Orthodox Church all run compounds which are heaving with worshippers every weekend. In one block of the city, we see over 50,000 Christian worshippers converge every Friday. Throw into this mix the Muslims attending Friday prayers at the Crown Prince Mosque next door to the churches and the result is a cacophony of sound where the Islamic call to prayer mingles with Christian hymn singing and choruses. Our biggest challenges here, especially during festivals, would appear to be car parking and crowd control!
Out of the bubble
There is a danger though. Clumped together in one neighbourhood, gathered in compounds with high walls, it would be easy for Christians to live in a bubble of isolation with no contact with the local Arab people. Therein lies the real challenge for the church. How do we build bridges with our Muslim neighbours in a way which does not foster suspicion or provoke antagonism?
One answer lies in building ministries which seek to serve the local community (expatriate and local) through practical expressions of compassion and seeking positive ways to express our support for the local people. In practice this means celebrating (or at least acknowledging) the major Islamic festivals which are so important to our neighbours. It can mean sharing meals, attending religious celebrations and being present in times of sadness and joy. These are the things which connect Christians and Muslims together.
Abu Dhabi city is growing. With more and more people arriving every month to take up roles in an ever diversifying economy, the future looks great. Several major projects are already half way through implementation. These include a huge New York University Campus, and new Guggenheim and Louvre museums. Completed projects include the amazing Formula 1 race track and the biggest indoor theme park in the world – Ferrari World. When I first arrived in the UAE twenty years ago, the population for the whole country was under 3 million people. Today it is touching 8 million and more are expected to come.
Surrounded by the glitz and the glamour it would be easy to overlook the sub strata of people who work hard in the service industries. Often invisible and poorly paid (if paid at all), there are thousands of domestic workers and manual workers in the labour camps. While there is an active surge of activity from the government to address evils such as human trafficking and exploitation of construction workers, inevitably there is much more to do. The Church is in the frontline – meeting, ministering and seeking to help those who have fallen on hard times.
The UAE government has been generous to the churches in providing them with land. While there are a handful of church compounds meeting in most of the other Gulf countries, the UAE is home to an amazing 40 different centres of Christian worship. These include Russian Orthodox, Brethren and Seventh Day Adventist as well as Roman Catholic and Anglican. While Western governments retreat from their Christian heritage and marginalise the role of churches in public life – it is amazing to see the affirming welcome of an Islamic government. This is truly a great example of interfaith policy put into practice. There are occasional events in which over- zealous Christians get arrested for insensitive proselytising, but considering that there are over a half million Christians living and working in the UAE , it is extremely rare to hear of a negative encounter between Christian and Muslim.
What is missing though is a national church for Emirati people. With a population which is 99.9% Muslim it is hard to envision how such a church would emerge and what it would look like. Given the strength of family and tribal ties along with a conservative commitment to the Islamic faith, this is one area in which it is difficult to see any significant change.
Yet, the strength of the expatriate church, the gracious hospitality of the Emirati people and the positive ecumenical relationships between the churches make the UAE a place where I for one, am glad to be part of a fascinating and diverse globalised Christian community.
The Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson MBE is senior Anglican Chaplain in Abu Dhabi and author of the book Christianity in the UAE: Culture and Heritage (Motivate Publishing, 2011).
To learn more about church in the UAE visit www.standrewauh.org