Pope Francis reaches out to UAE′s migrant-driven Christian population | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 02.02.2019
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Pope Francis reaches out to UAE's migrant-driven Christian population

Pope Francis is set to visit the United Arab Emirates. The country is home to some 800,000 Christians, most of whom are migrant workers. But just how much religious freedom do they enjoy?

A church in the UAE (Getty Images/AFP)

The Catholic St. Paul's Church in Abu Dhabi opened in 2015

When Pope Francis visits the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Sunday, he will be speaking to a Christian population made up mostly of migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia. Of the roughly 2 million Christians that live on the Arabian Peninsula, about 800,000 of them reside in the UAE.

Ulrich Pöner, in charge of international church affairs and migration at the German Bishops' Conference, says Francis wants to highlight just how diverse the UAE actually is. He says few know about the large number of Christians living in the country and the wider region.

Read more: Pope Francis' visit to UAE sends 'message of coexistence'

In addition, Francis wants to strengthen the Gulf's various Christian communities, Pöner says. "Because their numbers are declining in the Middle East. And it is possible that after a 2,000-year history of Christianity in this region, this religion could cease existing in some parts." That is why, he says, the pope wants to support these small communities and work to ensure their survival.

Pope Francis (Getty Images/AFP/A. Pizzoli)

Pope Francis will travel to the UAE on February 3

The oil-driven Christian immigrants

In the UAE, meanwhile, Christian communities can practice their faith relatively freely. There are Roman-Catholic congregations, Baptists, Anglicans and Copts. Their presence dates back to the early 1960s, when the UAE began ramping up its oil production and Christian engineers from the United States came to the country. The Emir of Abu Dhabi allowed them to practice their faith. And in 1965, the very first Christian church was inaugurated, after which many more followed. 

Today, about 90 percent of the Gulf state's population is comprised of immigrants and UAE citizens are in the minority. Pöner says the country's relative religious tolerance in comparison to some of its neighbors is a direct result of such large-scale immigration: "It is something you need to react to. You can either chose total repression, like Saudi Arabia. Or you chose to be open, like the UAE, which is the typical approach recommended by traditional Islam."

Christians in UAE (Getty Images/AFP)

Most of the UAE's Christian population is made up of migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia

Limits to religious freedom

Even so, there are limits to religious freedom in the Gulf state. Missionary work and proselytizing are prohibited. Anyone who ignores this ban will not be punished, according to the US State Department, but will most likely not have his or her residence permit renewed. Moreover, Christian crosses and other religious symbols may not be displayed so that they can be seen from the street. Renouncing Islam is illegal, and Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims.

Ulrich Pöner says Christian churches are like a kind of safe haven for believers. "They are protected from the outside. That is done to ensure that no locals or Muslims enter the churches and convert," he explains. "But inside the premises, Christians are free to do as they wish. They can worship together, engage in social, charitable and educational activities. Provided they do so within the congregation."

So is it accurate to say the UAE grants everyone full religious freedom? Pöner believes that is only partly true: "It is not the kind of freedom we tend to think of, in the sense that believers of all religions can freely engage in society." But at least, he concedes, Christians enjoy certain rights in the country. "They have their own space within which they can practice their faith," he says. "That is something."

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