By Linda Bordoni
Tuesday, 5 February 2019, is D-Day for Catholics who live and work in the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, and beyond.
It’s the day Pope Francis has chosen to celebrate Holy Mass in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City for some 135,000 faithful who have managed to obtain a ticket.
Most of them belong to the nine Catholic Churches of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia that ministers to the faithful in the UAE, Yemen, and Oman. A quota has also been reserved for the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
An overwhelming number of them have something in common: they are all migrants.
That’s because in the United Arab Emirates about 80% of the population is made up of workers who come from abroad, and many of them are Catholic.
Of the over 9 million people living in the UAE, only around 1 million are Emirati; all the others are drawn to the country in rapid economic expansion to find employment in all sectors, from white-collar office jobs to construction work and domestic labour.
A large portion of these workers of course are Muslims, but the number of Christians is growing – thanks also to the UAE’s policy of religious tolerance and to its support for the Catholic community, to whom it has donated land for its Churches.
All in all, it is estimated there are about 1 million Catholics in the UAE today, most of them from the Philippines and from India, but also from African countries, the Middle East, and Europe. As Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, told me: “It’s a multi lingual, multi-racial, multi-coloured Church!”
Church is home
Something else they have in common is that many have left their families and loved ones in far-away lands and the Church is the place they can really call home.
A home that is receiving the visit of the most important guest of all: the migrant Pope who reaches out to every single periphery.
Joy and gratitude for the Pope’s visit
This unique flock has welcomed Pope Francis’ presence with immense gratitude and emotion. The impression I have is of a deeply devoted and prayerful community. They are grateful to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi for having invited him, and they are grateful to Pope Francis for having come all this way, affirming them and loving them for who they are.
And already he has begun to sow new seeds of hope in this country, where “sand and skyscrapers meet” -he said in his first speech on Arabian soil - “a place of development, where once inhospitable spaces supply jobs for people of various nations,” calling gently for more rights for his people and reminding everyone to look after each other in the one human family, according to the will of God.