This week it was announced that a second Catholic church has been completed in Abu Dhabi and will be inaugurated with a mass on June 11. The first, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, was donated by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi in 1965 to serve Roman Catholic residents.
Who are the Catholics? Many are Filipinos, foreign workers in the Emirates, and it’s no accident that the story of the new church appears in the Manila Bulletin. But Catholics in Arabia come from all over the world, including the United States, and some of course are members of the expat business community and the diplomatic community.
There are churches throughout the Gulf countries--except in Saudi Arabia, which does not permit them. Thus the 1.5 million Catholics there cannot practice their religion. Saudi authorities, when I questioned them about this years ago, said everyone is free to practice his religion--privately. But this poor answer does not take any account of the place of the sacraments, and that of priests, in the practice of Catholicism.
The Emiratis take a different approach: freedom of religion actually exists, and the various emirate governments have donated land for Christian churches and cemeteries. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi donated land as well for a Baha’i cemetery, a notable fact considering the persecution Baha’is face in so many Muslim countries. Freedom House, in a very tough report on political rights in the UAE, acknowledged that "The minority Shiite Muslim sect and non-Muslims are free to worship without interference."
Given the terrible violence between Sunni and Shia in Syria and Iraq, and the maltreatment and persecution of Christians in so much of the Arab Middle East, the inaugural mass at the new St. Paul’s church in Abu Dhabi should be noted and applauded.