Mormon church plans first Middle East temple near Expo City Dubai

Exclusive: Temple is in design stage as discussions continue with authorities

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Hundreds of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints gather every Sunday in a church in Abu Dhabi, and a hotel in Dubai, to pray in a community they view as a large extended family.

Tall, arched windows glint in the sunshine that streams into a sandstone-coloured church building in Abu Dhabi’s Musaffah area, where the faithful gather to pray every week.

Inside the chapel, green hymn books are neatly placed in front of wooden pews ready for Sunday service.

Built in 2013, the "meeting house" in Abu Dhabi is the first and only such church in the Middle East.

When I was living on a mountain top and our worship service was in a llama barn, the teachings are the same everywhere
Amanda Fristrom, pianist

In Dubai, there are plans to build a new temple in Expo City Dubai. Announced in 2020, the building is still about three years away.

Discussions continue with authorities about the plot and designs being worked to add the building to the 170 Mormon temples in the world.

Once constructed, it will be the first Mormon holy place in the Middle East to conduct rituals of marriage and baptism.

While a church is a place of worship and for community activities, a temple is a source of spiritual strength dedicated to sacred ceremonies where they believe families are sealed together for eternity.

“It will be very unique to have a temple because not every country has one,” said Roland Back, a volunteer counsellor for the church’s Middle East and North Africa area.

“It will serve a large population, wider than the UAE. Other members will want to visit Dubai because there is a temple.”

Community meeting space

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has about 16 million members worldwide.

Their more informal name comes from their sacred text, the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830 by the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith.

Followers have lived in the UAE since the 1970s when some moved to work in the country.

A close-knit group of about 2,000 Christians gather for meetings during the week and pray together weekly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

At the church in Abu Dhabi, the chapel is on the ground floor, meeting rooms on the first and a recreation space with an indoor basketball court on the top floor.

Most rooms have a piano and singing hymns is central to worship.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 17, 2021.  Marcus Oates at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Mussafah.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Georgia Tolley

Children are taught the gospel in rooms decorated with paper flowers and verses from the scriptures.

What will the Dubai temple look like?

The closest Mormon temples are in Rome, Frankfurt and Kyiv, Ukraine.

The walls of the Abu Dhabi church have photographs of structures that vary, with several spires placed on the ground or steeples on the roof.

“Everybody is excited to see a temple built here and we are so grateful for the opportunity,” said Mr Back, who moved from Austria with his wife and five children to work in the oil sector in Abu Dhabi.

“We want to make sure that we represent the UAE’s spirit of tolerance and inclusion ― that will also drive the design.

“We look at local customs when we build.”

Typically, after a local government licensing department approves the design, it can take about three years to build.

While the chapel is open to all, the temple ― once dedicated ― will be open only to members of the faith.

But there are plans to add a space in Dubai for people who are curious about the religion.

People attend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' twice-annual church conference in October, 2021 in Salt Lake City. The well-funded Utah-based faith has 16 million members worldwide. AP photo

“What we want to ensure is that the temple grounds are open to all,” Mr Back said. “We want to avoid a situation where people see a temple and are impressed but cannot learn about it.

“We plan on having a meeting house near the temple for a space where we will explain our faith.

“We want to make sure it is engaging for everybody even if they cannot enter the temple because of its sacred nature.”

The temple will be open to the public for some time before it is dedicated for special services.

Not every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints can enter a temple.

They must qualify or earn their place and this is decided after a private talk with the local bishop where their personal conduct and moral worthiness is evaluated before being given a "temple recommend" that allows them to visit any temple in the world.

“We believe it is necessary to be worthy to enter the temple,” Mr Back said.

Funding will come from contributions from members around the world.

Voluntary clergy

Most positions are voluntary with members interchanging roles. They could teach Sunday school for a few years or be asked to lead groups.

The first church was established in 1830 in New York, but persecution and hostility drove them to set up headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In the UAE, five bishops serve the congregation spread across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

Bishop Otso Fristrom, with his wife Amanda, says having a sacred space for ceremonies is important for the community. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The community is very supportive of its members, pulling together to help parents needing support after the birth of a child or loss of employment.

“I like to call us a family and we welcome everybody who moves here into this family of ours, which spans the world,” said Bishop Otso Fristrom, from Finland.

He heads an investment consultancy business in Dubai where he lives with his wife and four children.

“There are constantly moments when we are trying to minister if there is a member of congregation in need.”

‘Church is the same everywhere’

Whether from a mountaintop in Peru or a hotel room in Dubai, the Sunday teachings are similar.

Church members around the globe this year are learning about the Old Testament with sections studied every week.

Amanda Fristrom, the bishop’s wife, is a pianist who oversees music taught to children.

“When I was living on a mountain top and our worship service was in a llama barn, the teachings are the same everywhere,” she said.

“The difference is whether it is a formal church building in Abu Dhabi versus another meeting place.

“It’s commonly heard that church is the same everywhere.

“That is one of the things that has united us as members.”

Preparing for the temple will be an inspiring time.

“Temples are central to our religion,” she said. “We go there as a place of refuge, for peace and comfort.

“Having a temple here will bring more of a sense of striving to be close to God.”

Updated: December 12, 2022, 5:33 AM