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from issue no. 11 - 2008

The Apostolic Vicar of Arabia’s testimony

The Birth of Jesus in the lands of Islam

The Bishop Apostolic Vicar of Arabia tells us how the numerous faithful await and celebrate the birth of the Lord

by Paul Hinder

Midnight mass in the church of St Joseph in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [© Fabio Proverbio]

Midnight mass in the church of St Joseph in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [© Fabio Proverbio]

People from Europe visiting the United Arab Emirates have the chance to see many building sites that are certainly among the largest and most spectacular in the world. Many are simply astonished at seeing so many wonders in a country where money does not seem to lack. One record after another: the highest tower in the world, the biggest airport in the world, the largest shopping mall, the most modern subway, and so on. Driving along the beautiful desert highways one occasionally sees large signs saying: “Coming soon!” Looking at the advertising one gets the impression of a permanent “advent”, because something new is always being promised, expected soon or that is now “opening”. Something that will make people happier is always being announced. Unfortunately this is a facade that hides another reality and does not show what can really make people full of joy. It’s like in Luke’s account: in the palaces of Jerusalem they do not know what is happening in the fields of Bethlehem. So it still is in our own times: the luxurious palaces of the new mega cities of the Gulf hide the the workers’ living quarters, often far from the highways. In those labor camps there is none of the splendor of the Emirates Palace of Abu Dhabi or the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.
But the story of the birth of Jesus has its place in those workers’ camps rather than in the luxurious palaces. Weren’t the shepherds’ camps the site of the first revelation of the Incarnation of the Word of God? The music and the Christmas carols of the shopping malls are not what make the Son of God appear among us. He appears rather in those prayer groups that form spontaneously among the workers, who pray together in poor places. I was recently in one of these living quarters and I met quite simple workers who live six to a room and told me with eyes full of joy and pride how they welcome the Lord in the simple prayer of their groups. The luckiest may perhaps have a vehicle available and be able to go to Midnight Mass or during Christmas day. There are thousands and thousands who celebrate the Birth of the Lord with joy and simplicity not only in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but in many other places of the Peninsula. During those days parish land becomes a welcoming arena open to all the faithful. There are also people who never have a day off throughout the year and therefore cannot go to mass. It seems that at Christmas many employers (and their wives) grant their employees at least a few hours off. It is these people who fill the squares in front of churches and the parish halls, where they can meet and even get something to eat. Those who come close to these communities, which are somewhat like that of the shepherds of Bethlehem, can say: “Today is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord”. In Dubai, in Abu Dhabi, in Muscat, Doha, in Bahrain, in Sana’a and in a great many other places what Saint Paul spoke of to Titus becomes real: “We have known the goodness of God, our Savior, and his love for men”.
It is true that we have no Christmas tree (except a horrible plastic substitute) and those beautiful Christmas traditions, but there is something deeper that is worth discovering. There is that faith in the Son of God who takes no account of rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, but of every person who puts his trust in Him unconditionally. Every now and again I am touched to see the Filipinos, Indians, the Pakistanis or the Arabs of the Levant countries get on their knees in front of the Child Jesus in the crib and kiss his feet. It is the gesture that responds to the Christmas hymn: “Come, let us adore Him!” Is this not He who on the cross took away the sins of the world? Are not they the ones who were promised the Kingdom? We must learn again from the poor and those who have no power what it means to say: God became man and became one of us, forever!

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