In Dubai, Christians pray side by side but not always together

|PIC1|On Fridays, the Holy Trinity church compound in Dubai is abuzz with worshippers from early morning till after nightfall. Some 10,000 - 11,000 members of more than 120 different Christian groups and congregations come here on the Emirates' weekly day of rest.

Services in more than a dozen tongues - including English and Arabic, but most of them South Asian such as Urdu, Tagalog, Tamil or Malayam - fill not only the main church from 6am to 11pm but the 25 other halls built around a central courtyard adorned with a Canterbury cross.

A vibrant church life may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Gulf region, which is primarily Muslim. But in a way, the 3-4 million Christians in the region, almost all of whom came in search of work from around the globe, present a microcosm of Christianity and the challenges of church unity.

At the Holy Trinity compound the Christian testimony is one of diversity in worship, from the solemnity of song to happy clapping. As one service ends, worshippers quickly rearrange what was a sober Protestant worship facility into an Orthodox sanctuary with icons and incense. Glory to God is proclaimed throughout the day in a variety of liturgies.

In Dubai, as throughout the United Arab Emirates, Christians are free to practise their faith, but only within the limits of their church compounds or in the privacy of their homes. The foundation stone of Holy Trinity Church was laid in 1969 by Sheikh Rashid bin Said Al Maktoum, then ruler of Dubai, who had graciously granted the land to the Christians living in his sheikdom.

A chaplain was appointed to care for the spiritual welfare of the expatriate Christians living in Dubai, Sharjah and the northern Trucial States, as the state entity which preceded the UAE was called. The following year, Holy Trinity was dedicated as an inter-denominational church building.

The Chaplaincy of Dubai and Sharjah has strong ties to the Anglican tradition. But it also lives up to its inter-denominational vocation and "the Anglican emphasis on hospitality", as the current chaplain Rev John Weir underlines, by accommodating more than a hundred congregations of other traditions in the Holy Trinity compound - be they Evangelical, Pentecostal or Orthodox.

The challenge of Christian unity

The intimate coexistence in which churches of all stripes and colours find themselves in the Emirates is both a challenge and a chance to develop a deeper sense of belonging to one ecumenical community.

"So far, the first thing churches build when they are allotted territory in a new church compound often is a wall separating their plot from the neighbour congregations," said Rev Rolf Pearson, who used to work in the UAE as Gulf liaison officer for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC).

"It is sad that churches [in compounds jointly granted to several denominations] are often built facing away from one another," acknowledged Weir, the Anglican chaplain, "when in fact, each church could encourage the other."

He added that, in the planning meetings for the next compound to be built, he would like to work with the other church leaders involved to find a more ecumenically oriented approach.

Since Christians are such a small minority in the country, the Emirate society sees them as one community. "We need a dialogue among Christians in the Gulf on what it means to be the church here," Catherine Graham, a committed volunteer with both the Anglican congregation and the Mission to Seafarers in Dubai, said at a meeting in April between a delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Christians from several Gulf countries.

One area in which churches can do good work together is their care for the needs of migrant workers. That this can earn them appreciation and support from the mainstream society has been proven by the case of the Mission to Seafarers.

The charity, which is part of an international Christian organisation caring for seafarers of any race or religion in over 300 ports around the world, was able to raise the necessary 3,650,000 dirhams (around £50,000) to build a boat for outreach to the crews of vessels lying off Dubai's busy port.

During its first year of service, the "Flying Angel" has provided 3,000 seafarers with the services and counsel of a paramedic and a chaplain. An onboard internet café allows the sailors, who often have no other contact with their families for weeks or months, to get in touch with their loved ones. Much funding came from Muslim Emirates who saw the need for such a service and the capacity of the Christian charity with its long experience in the Gulf to deliver it.

The service of the Mission to Seafarers is a perfect example of the biblical mandate for Christians to seek the welfare of the city where God has sent them which the WCC general secretary Rev Dr Samuel Kobia evoked in a sermon at Holy Trinity church during the visit in Dubai: " We must learn to welcome the stranger, every stranger, in a spirit of love and solidarity; to open up our relationships so that we may move from being strangers to being neighbours."

The churches in the Gulf may still have some way to go in order to fully live up to the particular challenges of their situation. But the ecumenical encounters witnessed by the WCC delegation bore evidence of a heartening enthusiasm and the readiness to pull their forces together. The very morning the WCC delegation left Dubai, the local ecumenical group who had prepared the visit met to set up task groups for a better coordination of their activities. A first fruit of their efforts will be a training programme for volunteers in a Christian charity in Oman in autumn.

Annegret Kapp is a WCC web editor and a member of the Evangelical Church in Württemberg, Germany.