Sunday, January 27

What's the world coming to? In UAE non-Muslims are increasingly able to worship openly.

"The U.A.E. will display its more accommodating stance in February when it hosts Pope Francis for the first visit by a sitting pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The pope’s itinerary includes engaging in an interfaith dialogue and celebrating Mass at a sports complex with a capacity of around 120,000."

In Arab Nation, Christians, Buddhists and Jews Emerge to Worship
U.A.E. celebrates religious tolerance and prepares to welcome Pope Francis
By Asa Fitch

Jan. 27, 2019 8:00 a.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal 

[See the WSJ website for photographs and a chart of percentages of religious denominations in U.A.E., "where most of the over nine million people are expatriates."]

DUBAI—Every Friday, on the fourth floor of a hotel conference center in this Arab business hub, several thousand Christians arrive to worship in two-hour shifts at what may be the world’s best-hidden megachurch.

There is no sign outside the center to guide people to Fellowship. The Protestant congregation sprang up roughly a decade ago in a place where Islam is the official religion, non-Muslim practice has long been closely monitored and sanctioned church buildings are limited and regulated.

But restrictions on places of worship have gradually loosened in the United Arab Emirates. The government has designated 2019 the “year of tolerance” to reinforce the idea that, in a region torn by conflict, people of diverse cultures and religions can find common ground.

The U.A.E. will display its more accommodating stance in February when it hosts Pope Francis for the first visit by a sitting pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The pope’s itinerary includes engaging in an interfaith dialogue and celebrating Mass at a sports complex with a capacity of around 120,000.

Fellowship started with a handful of people, but now attracts roughly 4,000 a week from all religious backgrounds to services at two hotels. The services reflect the opening to non-Muslims in the U.A.E., which has accelerated in recent years as the government cultivated ties with Western powers that value the freedom of worship and explored ways to undermine the pull of Islamic extremism.

As a result, a Buddhist temple catering to Sri Lankans, Cambodians and Thais is now operating out of a villa in Dubai. Leaders of a Jewish synagogue, which had been operating in secret, revealed its existence recently. A large Hindu temple is under construction. The religious institutions serve a population composed almost entirely of expatriate workers from Asia, Europe and beyond.

Rulers in the U.A.E. have allowed the establishment of churches since the 1960s, and have traditionally been more religiously permissive than neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, which bans any form of non-Muslim worship.

But religious freedoms here have limits. The U.A.E.’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship as long as it doesn’t clash with public policy or morals, according to the U.S. State Department in its religious freedom report for 2017. The country’s laws also prohibit blasphemy and non-Muslim proselytizing.

The U.A.E. shows little tolerance for political Islam, too, and authorities provide guidance for the content of sermons in mosques, the State Department said.

The U.S. government has been supportive of the U.A.E.’s push for tolerance, and State Department officials have met with local religious leaders, according to people who attended the meetings, amid efforts to foster better religious understanding across the Middle East, partly to combat terrorism.

The path toward open worship in the U.A.E. hasn’t been without its bumps.

There are about 45 officially sanctioned church buildings in the country, but more than 700 Christian congregations, leaving them to share limited space for services. In the lobby of the Evangelical Church center in Abu Dhabi, the capital, a board lists more than 50 congregations that worship there. Church services in the U.A.E. generally take place on Friday, the Muslim day of worship and a day off for most residents.

Local religious leaders said they would like to see more land allocated for church-building. But many also recognize that it isn’t their decision to make.

“There’s certainly a need for it,” says Rev. Andrew Thompson, the British chaplain at St. Andrew’s, an Anglican church in Abu Dhabi. “But I also caution Christians to say at the end of the day it’s not our country, and I’m concerned about the sense of entitlement.”

In Dubai, the phenomenon of hotel churches began a few years ago, after the Christian population became too large for designated church facilities. Congregations started meeting all over the city, but authorities eventually banned the practice last year, citing existing regulations for religious institutions.

Only three churches—including Fellowship—were allowed to continue meeting in hotels following an appeal to Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family who has been the country’s minister of tolerance since 2017.

Concerns about Christian congregations that couldn’t meet because of that move came up in discussions between a delegation of American evangelical leaders and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in November, according to several people who were there.

The Ministry of Tolerance didn’t respond to requests for comment about Emirati policy.

Local religious leaders said they are encouraged by gradual progress and are hopeful for the future. Many of the evangelicals came away from their meetings reassured that the problem stemmed not from deliberate persecution of Christians but from the lack of clear bureaucratic procedures to approve new churches, according to members of the delegation.

At a recent Fellowship service, there was no sign of security forces or government monitoring as people shuffled in and out. In a conference-center ballroom, a nine-piece band led by a Filipino woman in stonewashed jeans sung a rendition of Matt Redman’s Christian pop hit “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).”

Tim Maxson, one of the church’s pastors, led Communion for a congregation that looked like a cross-section of Dubai’s expatriate workforce, a mishmash of nationalities including Filipinos, Kenyans, Australians, Americans, South Africans and Indians.

“We have Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Mar Thomas, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Assemblies of God,” said Jim Burgess, the Oklahoman who became Fellowship’s first full-time pastor about 10 years ago. “People,” he said, “are not as concerned about the label as they are with what’s inside.”



No comments: