Saturday, January 12, 2013

Emirates: world's largest Catholic parish activates its laity in Islamic Dubai

The United Arab Emirates city of Dubai likely has the largest Catholic parish in the world, with over 300,000 parishioners. Equally noteworthy is the large degree of lay involvement among corporate professionals in in the Dubai church, considering it exists in a non-democratic and Islamic society, according to Brandon Vaidyanathan of Notre Dame University. 

Vaidyanathan presented a paper on Catholics in Dubai at the recent meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Phoenix, Arizona, which Religioscope attended. 

The paper is based on a comparison of the church in Dubai with the Catholic church in Bangalore, India and found there are notable differences in the degree and kind of involvement of corporate professionals in church social ministries. 

Even though Catholics are a minority in Bangalore, the diocese is the third largest in India and supports a wide range of schools, colleges, hospitals and other organizations for its 400,000 members.

Catholics in Dubai operate under restrictions as found in most other Islamic countries. The church was allowed space to build one parish and a school in 1965 for its foreign national population. Since then the population of Dubai grew sharply, going from 0.28 million in 1971 to two million in 2011. 

The Catholic population of the city rose to 300,000-largely due to the influx of Filipino and Indian expatriots (Arab states generally do not allow “foreign workers”-some whose families have been in these countries for three generations-to become citizens). Yet Vaidyanathan notes that the structural restrictions of allowing only one parish for 300,000 members may be a big factor in the Dubai's church significant degree of lay involvement.

The parish in Dubai is divided into many distinct ethnic and language groups, including Indians, Filipinos, non-Gulf Arabs (such as Lebanese and Syrians), Europeans (largely French), and Nigerians. Since the Catholic charismatic renewal is influential among Dubai's Catholics, the majority of groups that meet in church are prayer groups. 

All of these groups, but especially the language communities, serve as homes for new migrants, plugging them into social networks of people who “share their language, ethnicity, cuisine and other cultural practices, thus enabling them to feel a sense of belonging,” Vaidyanathan adds. 

Thus, newcomers or those on visit visas can find a job or housing through contacts they make at church.

At the same time, the Dubai church tries to bring the various groups together to foster unity and to provide social services and ministries. Often such services and events involve economic opportunities, such as job training and fund-raising for charitable causes. Because of the high parishioner-to-priest ratio throughout the Gulf region, lay ministry becomes especially important in providing social services. 

This is most obvious in Dubai, where there are only 10 priests for the 300,000 Catholics. In Bangalore, the parishioner-to-priest ratio is much lower, which means that clergy are more heavily involved in social ministries.

Because middle-class professionals in Dubai have the most time and resources, they often fill lay leadership roles in the church, according to Vaidyanathan. Skilled professionals, ranging from engineers to doctors and lawyers, have taken up the task of organizing and running church groups aimed at social betterment and economic empowerment. 

For instance, one movement for Filipinos, headed by a Catholic charismatic entrepreneur, teaches members how to start their own businesses; others engage in “multi-level marketing” in which individuals generate revenue by recruiting others to sell their products.

Such activity stands in sharp contrast with Bangalore, where lay professionals are not highly involved in church social ministries, even though the city is a hub of technology and business in India. 

While the unique structures of the Dubai church is a major reason for the prominent role that professionals play in lay ministry, there may be other factors in this phenomenon, concludes Vaidyanathan. 

One such factor may be that because expatriates in Dubai can only fill jobs in the private sector (because they are not citizens), they do not have the opportunity to work in social services and other public jobs as do Catholics in Bangalore and other cities.

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