January 29, 2017 Christa Pongratz-Lippitt
Muslim Dubai hosts world’s largest Catholic community
Although Dubai is a Muslim city and emirate, Christians may openly practice their faith and their parish is growing rapidly.
I went to Mass in St Marys, Dubai one Sunday morning in late April 2014. The Faith was electrifying.
It might come as a surprise to many that the largest Catholic parish community in the world is found in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. It numbers over half a million members and is growing quickly.
Although Dubai is a Muslim city and emirate, Christians may openly practice their faith and also wear crosses in public.
When Catholics applied to build the church of St Mary’s in Dubai in the 1960s, the then ruler, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Matoum, immediately gave permission. Not only – he personally laid the church’s foundation stone.
On Sundays, seven Masses in various different languages are held at St Mary’s, which is in the center of Dubai. The church is served by seven priests and holds around 2,000 worshipers. The church is full to overflowing at each Mass with people often having to stand in the doorway.
The Dubai Catholic community also has a second church, St Francis. It sits some 35km southwest of the city at Jebel Ali, the largest man-made harbor in the Middle East. It is the world’s ninth busiest port and with the planet’s largest desalination plant it provides an ample supply of fresh water.
Fr Reinhold Sahner is the parish priest at St Francis. He has four assistant priests to help him look after his rapidly growing parish.
And he is amazed at how fast his community is expanding.
“We are almost growing too fast to cope with all our new members," the priest told Catholic news agency KNA on a visit to his native Germany in mid-January.
Fr Sahner said he usually baptizes an average of five children each week and conducts 50 marriages a year at St Francis. He also noted that the church is home to many converts to Catholicism.
“When one of the partners is Catholic, the other usually does not want to remain Hindu or Buddhist,” he said.
“Dubai is first and foremost geared to business and there isn’t much one can do except work,” the priest pointed out.
“Moreover anything one can undertake outside work is decidedly expensive. The church and its activities are therefore an attractive place to go when one is off work”, he explained.
Fr Sahner said his greatest interest was in pastoral work with those on the periphery of society in a city “which is fixated on money, gold, and glamor".
Filipino, Pakistani and African guest workers make up a very high percentage of his community. They live in their thousands in so-called labor camps.
“For them practicing their faith in our church is a piece of home. At Christmas our young people take them parcels of rice, oil and canned food,” he said.
Fr Sahner said Christianity and Islam are entering into an astonishing level of cooperation in Dubai, but he noted that there is still one area with need for improvement – inter-religious dialogue.
“We are, however, extremely grateful for what is already possible here; namely that we, as the largest Catholic community in the world, have been accepted in a Muslim country. And our daily bidding prayers naturally include Dubai’s ruling family,” he told KNA.
Islam is the state religion in the United Arab Emirates. And while religious freedom is guaranteed, conversion to a non-Islamic religion is not recognized and is even punishable by death.
But according to the US State Department’s 2014 “International Religious Freedom Report”, the death penalty is never applied.
There are 35 different Christian churches in the UAE. Most of them have been built on land donated by the country’s ruling families.