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.
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.
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.
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.
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.