Tag Archives: United Arab Emirates

THE UAE’s X-FACTOR

18 May

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Overflowing churches are not what you expect to find within this Islamic nation. With guest workers comprising about 85% of the population of the United Arab Emirates, however, the government graciously granted land upon which churches could be built. Hundreds of thriving congregations now exist in this part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Christian hospitals, pioneered in this area before any others existed, were largely responsible for the government’s accommodating attitude. IMG_1135When the Oasis Hospital was opened by Christian workers in Al Ain in 1960, a church was established on part of the original land grant. Later this church was officially separated from the hospital, but the same compound is today used by no fewer than 32 groups of worshipers every week. Roman Catholics have their own property, as do Orthodox and Anglicans.

The compound’s largest congregation is the international, English-speaking church, numbering 400 to 500 people. Among the kaleidoscope of other fellowships are Arabic-, Afrikaans-, Filipino and Urdu-speaking Pakistani congregations, large Malayalam- and Telagu-speaking groups for Indians, and a Thursday evening evangelical Episcopalian church. Loud calls to prayer often intrude from the mosque right next door, but that doesn’t inhibit the enthusiasm of church gatherings. All maintain a distinctly evangelical viewpoint and programmes such as the Alpha Course and Perspectives series have been run on a regular basis.

“We’re maxed out!” declares Pastor Stan Rubesh of TEAM, who has lived in the UAE for 22 years. For the last 12 of those years he has been responsible for the church centre in Al Ain, pastoring the international congregation for a time. The pastor adds that he gets a constant flow of applicants to use the compound, especially with the growing difficulties relating to gatherings in hotels and other venues.

Rubesh says he has seen the birth of Sri Lanka and Nepali fellowships, and is anticipating that other linguistic/ethnic groups will also be reached in a similar manner. A recent convention held for Nepali Christians attracted 500 men and women, most of whom met the Lord after moving to the UAE.

The UAE government grants residence visas for church workers who are affiliated with recognised church groups, but most congregations are led by lay pastors. The churches actively pray for and reach out to the unsaved, and are able to sow many seeds amongst the expatriates who work there; often they live in labour camps where construction companies and others accommodate thousands of workers in sometimes poor conditions. Other believers show the love of Jesus through medical care and education.

The number of purpose-built worship centres has increased, and the mind-set of Christians has matured. More are now concerned about the need to reach other foreigners who don’t know Christ. The United Christian Church of Dubai (UCCD) has so far planted three other flourishing bookshopchurches in the country. Congregations are even taking the responsibility of sending people to minister cross-culturally in other countries. An increasing number of youth have volunteered for missions. At any one time, five to 10 are serving somewhere in the world with OM International.

OM feels the time is ripe to establish a full-time representative to churches in the area, to encourage their mission vision. “We are uniquely positioned to demonstrate a different approach to missions and mobilise, recruit and raise money,” explains a spokesperson. “This is a message that you can preach publicly within UAE churches. But to really birth this vision we need people, young men in particular, who are looking for adventure.”

Although there is as yet no national church among Emiratis, Christian workers call the United Arab Emirates a beachhead. “God has put His stake in this land. There is an openness here that is in no other place in the Arabian Peninsula. With hundreds of churches and thousands worshiping the Lord in the UAE, something has got to happen!”

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Dreams in the desert

29 Apr

God is preparing the way for a spiritual awakening in the Gulf

IMG_0907It’s the planet’s largest importer of gold and boasts the tallest building, the fastest power boats, the richest horse races and the biggest shopping mall. The United Arab Emirates delights in breaking world records–maybe because Emiratis themselves still marvel at their newfound wealth. The discovery of oil has catapulted the UAE from camels to Cadillacs, from shifting sands to six-lane highways and from tents to state-of-the-art office blocks–all within the space of 50 years.

Not all Western imports to the Arab world have been beneficial. Drugs and alcohol are serious problems, and an over-indulgence in fast food has turned one in five residents into diabetics. The initial oil wealth has attracted enormous levels of foreign labour– western management and expertise combined with low cost manual and semi-skilled labour from South Asia –and this has resulted in spectacular economic development. It has also resulted in bizarre demographics, with expatriates making up 85 per cent of the population.

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Even Islam takes second place to the affluenza virus. Newly arrived Christian workers are bewildered to find churches abounding in all denominations; the government has even gifted them with land. In December, malls carry all the trappings of Christmas. And nowhere do fierce mutawa–the religious police so notorious in neighbouring Saudi Arabia–strike fear into the hearts of less-than-conservatively-dressed tourists. Life is deceptively easy.

Although religious police do exist, they concentrate on deflecting extremist elements like Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nobody wants terrorists rocking the boat of prosperity. The real difficulty for foreigners lies in getting close enough to the Emirati people to share the truth of Jesus Christ. Nearly 100% are Muslims and although a good number are secularised, Islam is still an important part of their identity. Mosques are within walking distance in every neighbourhood, by law; there are even places for prayer in shopping malls. Every day they join the billion all over the world who bow toward Mecca.

IMG_0944Locally-born residents are easy to spot, the women veiled head to toe in black, men elegant in flowing white dishdashas and head coverings. But how does one make friends with them?

Expatriates require a visa, which means most of them, including Christian workers, must have full-time jobs as bankers, teachers, architects, business consultants, and so on. “It’s very easy to lose focus, to get busy and lose the way,” confess these workers. “You have to be intentional in ministry even when you’re tired, and make an effort to learn the language.” But the fact that almost everyone around you speaks English or Hindi or Urdu or some other language makes learning and practicing Arabic doubly difficult.

“The UAE–and Dubai in particular–is one of the toughest nuts in the Gulf to crack because of the economic prosperity,” admits another worker who has lived in the area for 13 years. “However, this is the front line. This is where my heart has always been directed, and that’s why I’m excited to be here!”

Major  ‘quakes’ in the Arab world

He points to three major shake-ups in the Arab world identity in recent years: 9/11, which made many Muslims question the ethos of Islam, what it is really about; the big economic crash of 2008, which hit Dubai – the business hub for the Arab world – particularly hard; and the “Arab Spring” of 2011–a season of great political upheaval for many societies in which ordinary Arabs discovered they could effectively challenge authority, both political and religious.

“God is unsettling all the assumptions that have recently governed the Arab world. While it looks stable, a lot is going on underneath. Western education has undermined a lot of Islamic assumptions and there is vast disillusionment, especially among young people. The trickle of pent-up frustrations of women is also becoming a deluge. Things are falling into place, so we must be prayerful and as ready as we can be. It’s not us who will decide when the change will come, it’s the Holy Spirit.”

How then should world Christians intercede? “Pray that God will equip His people with boldness,” he says. “It’s so easy here to be inhibited by security concerns. Also pray for personal holiness. The temptations we face here are no less than what we have at home. But if we have a heart for these people and we are focused, faithful and holy–we will get to be part of a truly amazing work of God!”

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