Dubai: is this the largest parish in the world?

Dubai: is this the largest parish in the world?

Patrick Byrne

Dubai's St. Mary's Catholic Church has 300,000 to 400,000 parishioners, making it possibly the largest Catholic parish in the world.

Compare this to Sydney's Parramatta Diocese, which has 320,000 Catholics serviced by 48 parishes.

Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was formed in 1971 with the federation of seven Arab states, including Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. The region's wealth comes from oil. The UAE has the world's seventh largest oil reserves and 17th largest gas reserves.

There are seven Catholic parishes across the Emirates, with an eighth parish currently being established.

Dubai's St Mary's Church was build on land granted by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, in 1966. The Sheikh opened St Mary's the following year.

Land was also donated to a number of Christian denominations and other major religions to build churches across Dubai and the UAE.

When the parish outgrew the old church, the new St Mary's church was built in 1989 to seat 1,700. However, more than 2,000 people regularly attend the numerous masses, even on weekdays. Parishioners spill over into the open square in front of the church where the Mass is broadcast via loudspeakers and projectors on giant screens.

On major feast days, between 10,000 and 20,000 Catholic faithful fill the square and parish grounds, which also contains the presbytery, the convent for a congregation of religious sisters, a school and a small sports ground.

On Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer, there are at least 12 Masses. On Saturdays and Sundays there are up to seven.

Weekday Masses are celebrated in the mornings and in the evenings. Most Masses are celebrated in English, but also in the Indian sub-continent languages of Malayalam, Konkani, Tamil, Urdu and Sinhalese. Filipinos hear the Mass in Tagalog. Other Masses are said in Arabic and French.

Around 85 per cent of Dubai's population is made up of foreigners working on the world's largest construction site outside China. Dubai's high-rise building boom aims to service a huge tourist industry, attracting many from Russia and Europe during the northern winter. It is also a major financial and commercial hub for the Middle East.

Among the huge number of foreign labourers are many Catholics from India and the Philippines, and a range of professionals from Australia, Europe and elsewhere.

Capuchin Father Tomasito Veneracion has been the parish priest of St Mary's for the past four years. Before that he spent seven years working in the desert city of Qatar. Along with nine brother priests from various different countries, he takes care of the pastoral outreach within the parish.

Earlier this year, Aid to the Church in Need interviewed Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for southern Arabia, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction covering the UAE, Yemen and Oman.

Bishop Hinder explained, "In this state of temporary emigration, the Church becomes a sort of second home, where the migrants can find not only a spiritual home but also more easily make contact with one another. As a result, in the handful of parishes that we have here, the parish grounds become a kind of meeting place, both in a spiritual and a human sense."

As Aid to the Church in Need reported, hundreds of volunteers assist the priests, acting as extraordinary ministers at communion, readers, conducting choral groups and directing parishioners to the available empty seats in the church or guiding them to the nearest point to receive Holy Communion.

Volunteers do pastoral work visiting people in hospitals, work camps and prisons, and helping with legal issues and medical problems. Three times a year the parish provides free health checks for 500 to 600 people.

According to Aid to Church in Need's report, "Absolutely no distinction is made as to whether the people are Christians or Muslims, rich or poor."

It went on to say that "every Friday close on 300 lay catechists come together to give religious instruction to around 6,300 children and young people ... Children are taught the catechism, grouped according to age, and in at least three separate shifts, one after another".

A second church. St Francis of Assisi, was opened in November 2001 by Bishop Bernard Gremoli as part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.

While many Christians and Muslims are leaving troubled areas of the Middle East, Christianity is growing around the Persian Gulf, due the influx of migrant workers.

Consequently, Bishop Paul Hinder wants to strengthen the existing Church structures and invest more in schooling and education. The four schools currently run by the Church within the UAE have an excellent reputation, including with Muslim parents. Half of the 7,500 pupils are Muslims.

In 2011, the Christian churches of the UAE hosted a reception at Dubai's Atlantis Hotel for government leaders in recognition of the strong support the UAE had provided to the churches.

The event was hosted by leaders of the Arab Evangelical Church in Dubai and Northern Emirates, the United Church of Christ of Dubai, the Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic churches.

Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi is the UAE's Minister of Foreign Trade. She stressed the importance of focusing on beliefs in common and avoiding difference to live in harmony and understanding.

Pastor Onsy Albert, Head of the Arab Evangelical Church in Dubai and Northern Emirates, emphasised the peaceful coexistence between religions in the Gulf states. He used the occasion to announce a "Dubai Prays" campaign for the UAE's leaders.

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