Most Christian expats in Gulf can celebrate Christmas

Christian expatriates in the Gulf enjoy increasingly more freedom to worship and celebrate feasts, especially Christmas, except in Saudi Arabia, where non-Islamic practices still lead to jail and deportation.

In the run-up to Christmas, the youths of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic church in Abu Dhabi performed a religious play in the city’s cultural centre for the first time.

The law in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to ban any preaching activities outside churches.

“We are very grateful to officials here,” St Joseph’s pastor, Father Nidal Abu Rujaili, said, pointing out that an official from the UAE religious authority attended the play.

“He also addressed the parish, stressing the importance of accepting the other and the dialogue between religions. He [also] commended the play and congratulated Christian expatriates” for the festive season, Abu Rujaili added.

Abu Dhabi’s Roman Catholic church stands in a complex that also houses a school and a parish centre.

“We have lived here for years and we always practised our rituals freely inside the church. But to be allowed to have a religious play outside the church is a great progress,” said a parish member as he stood in the church yard.

Next to the Catholic “complex”, a new church for the Coptic community is being erected, while an Anglican church stands just behind it.

“All churches hold their masses on Friday [which is the weekend in the UAE] instead of Sunday, so that all members can take part,” he said.

In Dubai, the neighbouring emirate that is fashioning itself as a cosmopolitan city, thousands of Filipinos gathered for an outdoor Christmas mass.

As a choir sang Filipino Christmas carols, an Indian man guided Arab visitors into the church, where a Lebanese group was singing in Arabic.

“Christmas Day is surely not a holiday here, but we feel the festive atmosphere in the city.
Malls are packed with Christmas decorations,” said Roni Murr, a Lebanese expatriate.

Christian expatriates in Qatar got a big present from the government this Christmas as a cornerstone for a complex of churches was laid in the capital, Doha, in early December.

The government of the gas-rich state has provided about 95 000 square metres of land to build six churches for different communities, in addition to dormitories for priests, becoming the first in Qatar, said an engineer involved in the project.

Kuwait’s government also decided recently to provide land for two new churches, drawing criticism from Islamist MPs.

Islamist MP Walid al-Tabatibai considered the decision to be “in contrast with the sharia [Islamic law]” claiming that there are “20 churches in the country while the number of Kuwaiti Christians does not exceed 100 people”.

But a church official said there are only nine churches in Kuwait, and five of them are in rented premises.

“There are some 150 to 200 Kuwaiti Christians, but there are tens of thousands of Christian expatriates in the country,” the official said requesting anonymity.

But Christian expatriates in Saudi Arabia do not enjoy any of the rights that their brothers and sisters do in neighbouring Gulf countries.

The ultra-conservative kingdom, which is classified by the United States as a country where religious freedoms are violated, bans all non-Islamic practices.

No sign of the Christmas festivities can be seen in Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by the strict teachings of the Wahabist interpretation of Islam. Those who get caught performing their rituals face jail and deportation.

But this ban fails to terrify all expatriates, and some meet in “underground churches” to worship.

“I was a member of a Christian praying group. We used to meet in houses and hold Masses secretly,” said a Christian who lived before in Saudi Arabia.

“Christmas parties used to be held in houses or in embassies, but life behind the closed doors was completely different. Nobody would realise that it is the most important feast for hundreds of thousands of foreigners living in the country,” he added.—AFP

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