Crowded Christmas services are multilingual

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Churchgoers flocked to Christmas Eve services throughout the country last night, while congregations from different countries will hold special masses today. Christmas services will continue until Friday, when most people have the day off. St Joseph's Church in Abu Dhabi kicked off the Christian holiday with an outdoor Christmas Mass at eight o'clock last night, followed by caroling until High Mass at midnight.

The Dubai Evangelical Community Church held services in Arabic and English last night, and will hold them in Korean and English today. Many congregations, which are usually formed by people from the same country or who speak the same language, have grown rapidly in recent years and some have struggled to find a church to hold their services during the holiday season. To mark the season, the Dubai Evangelical Community Church organised a collection of donations and cash for Care, a charitable organisation, for the distribution of packages of food and clothes at labour camps.

The church's namesake in Abu Dhabi organised a similar charity drive and intends to deliver care packages to labourers on Friday. The Government has been donating land to churches and giving their pastors residency visas since the 1960s. In the past year it has standardised the process to allow any recognised church to apply for land and permission to build. Earlier this year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known also as the Mormon Church, received permission to build its first church in the Arab world in Abu Dhabi. About three per cent of the UAE population is Christian, but it is a group that is growing fast. Almost all of the country's Christians are expatriates who have moved here. The main complaint of church leaders is that they need more land to accommodate the growth of their congregations. On a typical Friday at the multi-denominational church complex in Jabel Ali, in Dubai, more than 11,000 Christians flock to worship in multilingual, back-to-back sermons that begin at six in the morning and end at midnight. It is a similar picture at the Abu Dhabi church complex. While all the Christian denominations are growing, the Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches are gaining numbers especially quickly. It is common for churches to be shared by half a dozen congregations that speak different languages, including Tagalog, English, Mandarin, Korean, Arabic and Hindi. On a recent visit to the UAE, the Rev Samuel Kodia, secretary general of the World Council of Churches, said Christians were thankful for free land and the freedom to worship in the UAE, but called for more land for churches. The UAE prides itself on promoting religious tolerance. A 2007 report on religious freedom by the US state department noted that the "Constitution provides for freedom of religion ... and the Government generally respects this right".