By C.M. Paul, SAR NEWS
SHARJAH, The United Arab Emirates Dec 4 -- With an increase in the number of believers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over the past 30 years, Christians are now seeking greater pastoral care, faith formation and youth ministry.
"It is a matter of sheer numbers which we cannot cope with," says Salesian Father Tomy Kuruvilla, director of Rhythm Music School in Sharjah.
"When I arrived here the first time, I was literally shocked to see the tremendous faith of the expatriate community. To a certain extent, it energises one's own belief," recalls Father Kuruvilla who reached UAE some 15 years ago.
Growing Community of Christians
The ever-growing Catholic community of St. Michael's parish in Sharjah, in the Vicariate of Arabia, entrusted to the care of the Capuchins (O.F.M.) consists of believers from almost 20 nationalities with a floating numerical strength of about 65,000 expatriates.
They include Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Africans, Chinese, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, British, Americans and Italians.
It is the same in the neigbouring UAE States of Abu Dhabi, with about 75,000 and Dubai, which has 85,000-plus Catholics.
Till about a decade ago, the Church services were predominantly conducted in English. Now, besides weekly Eucharist in Latin rite, the Malayalee community has weekly services in Syro-Malabar and Malankara rites.
Almost 80 percent of the Indians in Sharjah are Malayalees while the remaining 20 percent could be divided among other nationalities, the majority being the Filipinos.
About 80 percent of the Indian Christians in Sharjah belong to the Syro-Malabar rite.
Urgency for faith Formation and Youth ministry
"Many a time I have wondered what exactly is the reason for this external manifestation of deep hunger and thirst for anything spiritual. Is it a defensive projection of a subconscious fear of being surrounded by a hostile environment," asks 50-year-old Kuruvilla who considers it a privilege to be part of a vibrant faith-filled community.
The Sunday obligation in Sharjah extends to three days from Friday to Sunday with 17 Masses, catechism class, children's and adult's Masses, and regular weekly family cell meetings.
The English language catechism for children is held on Fridays (9.30 a.m. to 10.45 a.m.), and their special Eucharist is organised separately in three groups according to age and language.
About 3,000-plus children are at the disposal of the Catholic Church on Fridays for almost three hours. "There is a near-stampede in the Church and the catechism teachers have a tough time to make sure that children reach their parents waiting outside. The lack of space really makes it a Herculean task for them," says Father Kuruvilla.
The Arabic community has its catechism on Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. They number about 1,500 families belonging to various Arab nationalities.
Need for New Parishes
"I strongly feel and recommend that we consider opening new parishes for greater pastoral care. This will reduce the unwieldy numbers and enable the church to serve better.
"We do take a lot of trouble to come to the church every week daring all types of obstacles. The traffic situation too is chaotic," says a parishioner, Lydiya Pinto.
"Lack of parking anywhere near the church adds to our misery. The over-crowded church atmosphere makes things even more difficult. With this, if we have to just rush in and out of the church every time we come for the service -- when we are seeking solace and relief for our overburdened hearts -- I just don't see the point of taking all this trouble. It is high time that we thought of dividing the crowd. We should already initiate with the authorities to look out for a new plot to build another church," she insists.
"Today the expatriate community is no more a floating population. So the Church should think in terms of a long term vision for education, and diversification of work so as to take care of our holistic formation," adds Angela, a female college student.
Need for Catechetical Centre
The classrooms for catechism are overcrowded due to lack of facility. Imagine almost 100 students in a class, almost sitting in each other's lap. Forget about all the educational psychology of classroom management, there's hardly time to take the attendance.
"It is boring and practically just passive-listening. The congestion with almost 100 students in the class does not make the weekly experience a memorable one at all," complains Myerson, an eighth standard student.
"While we appreciate the rare privilege offered to us to sustain our faith in this desert, by fulfilling our Sunday obligation, I feel it is high time that the church really thought of real professionalism in its effort to cater to our spiritual needs," opines Abraham, a schoolteacher who has been in the Gulf for over twenty years.
Signs of Hope
The appointment of the Nuncio is seen as a positive move on the part of the Rome church, to pave the way for a dynamic Church presence in its diverse forms. Other religious congregations of both men and women could be invited to join with Capuchin's OFM to cater to the vibrant Catholic community, especially to minister to the spiritual needs of the young.
Recently, on the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to the UAE, a foundation stone was laid in Sharjah for the building of first Russian Orthodox Church in the country.
The shrine, estimated to cost Dhirams 30 million, is being built on a plot provided by the Government of Sharjah.
The UAE Government provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs. However, it declares Islam is the official religion of the country.
The government recognises a number of Christian denominations, through the issuance of land-use permits, for the construction and operation of churches. It also follows a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslim religious groups.