Abu Dhabi workers living far from home said they are relieved they can return to communal prayer now that non-Muslim places of worship in industrial areas have reopened their doors to the faithful.
St Paul’s Church began services on Monday evening in Mussaffah, a densely populated industrial area of the capital, after months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Catholic church holds one daily service and five on Friday to limit intake to a few hundred worshippers compared to several thousand who would have attended before outbreak.
Suresh Saldanha, 42, attended the first service on Monday. He would go to church daily before places of worship were closed across the country to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in March.
“It’s great news for us. People feel relief that the doors are now open,” said the logistics supervisor, whose wife and two young sons live in Mangalore city in southern India.
“When you are away from family, being in church feels like you are part of a bigger family. This is how it feels for workers in Mussaffah.
“I do wish I could visit church everyday. But I need to give others a chance so I will go only once or twice a week.”
He said worshippers found strength praying as a community after business closures and job losses due to the virus.
“Groups of us helped to give people food kits,” Mr Saldanha said.
“The UAE government also helped a lot with food for people in need.”
Churches in Abu Dhabi city and a few smaller parishes in Dubai reopened in late July, but places of worship in industrial areas, with a large labour population, were permitted to reopen last week.
The church said it took time to sort out all the mandated sanitisation precautions before opening.
While children and the elderly are now permitted inside most non-Muslim places of worship, stringent safety guidelines continue to be observed in crowded neighbourhoods.
Fr Maxim Cardoza, a priest at St Paul’s church, said worshippers above 60 and children below 12 would not be allowed inside the church in Mussaffah and that masks and gloves were compulsory.
“The elderly, children and the sick can watch the mass that we will continue to stream live online. We are following guidelines given to us for the safety of our congregation,” he said.
“We have taken every precaution because there are many labour and bachelor accommodation in the industrial area.”
People must register online for the specific mass they wish to attend and will receive email confirmation that they must present to enter the church.
"Only those confirmed for that particular mass will be allowed entrance," he told The National.
“Registrations have started and are slowly coming in. It will not be crowded when we open this week. It’s a cautious response.”
The busy church normally welcomed about 7,000 worshippers at the weekend and held several services in different languages including English, Malayalam and Tagalog.
Only 260 worshippers will now be allowed into the church and another 90 will be guided into a hall, in line with social distancing regulations.
“It is a time to come together,” Fr Cardoza said.
“People need to connect again. They have gone through distress and struggle. We need to take care of ourselves and one another.
“My message is that our coming together is joyful. We have been missing this togetherness. It is faith that gives us strength.”
In a video posted online, the church has spelt out new procedures that include entry from the basement, no parking allowed in the basement area and people carrying their Emirates identity card.
Thermal scanners have been installed and two-metre distance signs are clearly marked on the premises.
Gates will shut 10 minutes before mass begins and to avoid crowds and parishioners have been asked to arrive 30 minutes before the service.
For years, Jossy Pinto, 37, has walked to church daily for the first service every morning from his residence a few minutes away.
“For the last six months, we have really missed praying as a group,” said the operations co-ordinator for a crane rental company.
Mr Pinto has worked in Abu Dhabi for 13 years. His wife and children live in Karnataka state in southern India.
“Everyone is excited to go back. But we are conscious about Covid-19 and will follow what the volunteers say. I will pray for family, my friends, for job security, for the whole country and the world.”