By Linda Bordoni
Most Catholics in the United Arab Emirates are foreign workers, notably from Catholic countries such as the Philippines and parts of India.
Although a Muslim-dominated country, the government has a policy of tolerance toward other religions, and Catholics are free to worship without fear of discrimination or persecution.
The Filipino Ambassador to the Holy See, Grace Relucio Princesa, explains that of the 1 million Catholics in the UAE, some 700,000 are from the Philippines and says they are awaiting Pope Francis’ visit as a “once in a lifetime occasion”.
Ambassador Princesa spoke to Linda Bordoni with warmth and respect about the years she spent in Abu Dhabi, upholding the Emirates as a model of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
The Ambassador looks back to her own diplomatic career which took her to Abu Dhabi from 1994 to 1996 as Consul of the Philippine Government.
She says not only did she discover there was a Catholic Church there, but she witnessed, first-hand, the openness towards different faiths.
“We were free to worship and that’s what I saw and I liked it. I prayed to go back, and I did as Ambassador from 2009 to 2015,” she said.
Some 120,000 Catholics will be given the opportunity to attend the Holy Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi on February 5 on the last day of his apostolic visit, and the Ambassador explains that they will include nationals from across the world.
“The parishes have allocated, in accordance with all the communities, a certain number of tickets so that everybody will be represented,” she says.
Filipinos awaiting Pope Francis in UAE
Ambassador Princesa is at a loss for words to explain the excitement and anticipation of her fellow countrymen as they are aware the Pope’s visit is “a once in a lifetime occasion.”
“It’s also a validation of the country as a place of tolerance,” she says.
She explains that while the government proclaimed 2018 as “The Year of Zayed” marking the 100th anniversary from the birth of the Founding Father of the Nation, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, this year has been declared “The Year of Tolerance”, and it’s within this context that the papal visit takes place.
“This visit is epochal, the first ever visit of a Pope (to the Arabian Peninsula) and it comes at a moment when the world needs to see different faiths believing in the communality of our humanity – of human dignity. That’s what this visit personifies,” she says.
The Ambassador says the visit is also “a validation of the UAE as a country that welcomes all beliefs” and says that the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where Pope Francis will meet the Muslim Council of Elders “is not just a place of worship: it’s a place of culture and of friendship”.
She points out that the nation even has a Minister of Tolerance in an institutional role.
Role of OFWs
Ambassador Princesa speaks also about the hugely significant role Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) play in the economy of their country.
“We supposedly contribute 10% of the country’s GDP,” she says, pointing out that the contribution of OFWs in the UAE is third in line after those working in the US and in Saudi Arabia.
She highlights the social cost of migration, especially for women, explaining that so many Filipino women travel abroad to offer their services in the domestic sector.
We are considered “the top of the line in tender-loving care… we are like ‘5 star’ and they want us”.
However she says that, protecting the rights of workers, the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (no. 189) has been approved by the UAE’s cabinet and awaits approval and ratification by the Federal National Council and the President of the UAE.
“The Filipinos are doing a lot; but there are a lot of them and they must like it there, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the UAE,” she says.
What she respects most, she says, is that in the UAE there is the recognition of the role of religion in the life of migrants.
Significance of Papal visit
Ambassador Princesa describes this visit by Pope Francis as “super meaningful”. She quotes an Arabic saying that emphasizes we are all brothers and sisters, a concept that resounds in Pope Francis’ message as he travels to the Arabian Peninsula.
We pray and hope this visit, she concludes, “will set the parameters and be the guide for more inter-faith dialogue”.