Abu Dhabi churches and temples to receive new legal status on Sunday

All 17 churches in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain will be officially recognised

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Devotees, ahead of the PopeÕs visit at St. JosephÕs Cathedral on February 2, 2019. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Abu Dhabi's oldest church and the country’s first traditional Hindu temple will be among 18 places of worship to receive official legal status on Sunday.

In total 17 churches in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain - some that predate the UAE's formation in 1971 - and the temple on the outskirts of the capital will be formally recognised.

These include St Joseph's Cathedral, the emirate's oldest church , which dates back to 1965.

Many places of worship were built on land gifted by the emirate's Rulers and operated with informal approval from local authorities.

The emirate's Department of Community Development said the move will ensure religious leaders have a clear channel of communication, which they can use to ask for support or obtain permission to host special events.

Pastor Jeramie Rinne, from the Evangelical Community Church, said having legal status should allow churches to open bank accounts more easily and apply to expand.

“It shows the UAE cares for religious minorities as part of their culture of tolerance, by giving churches an official legal status in the country,” he said.

“When we have questions, we have not always known where to go.

“This creates a whole department we can go to in order to address concerns and needs and this is remarkable.”

The pastor leads about 1,000 worshippers from about 60 nationalities that include the Philippines, India, Lebanon and the United States in prayer every weekend.

The three-storey building in Mushrif they occupy is home to 50 congregations and about 10,000 worshippers from various churches.

The Evangelical Community Church traces its roots to the living room of a group of expatriates that started Oasis Hospital in 1972 in Al Ain.

“We started almost 50 years ago with a very small congregation,” Pastor Rinne said.

He said now there are more than a million Christians in the country.

"There is need for more space and more buildings, not only for us but for others too.

The Pope's visit to the UAE was hailed as a celebration of the UAE's efforts to promote inter-faith harmony among all people

“The UAE is a young nation that is developing, growing and modernising and the licensing is yet another step in the positive growth and evolution of the country.”

Several churches were lit up in green at the weekend ahead of Sunday's function to mark International Peace Day.

Sultan Al Daheri, executive director of the Department of Community Development, said licensing places of worship is both symbolic and practical, providing "an official unified channel within the government for religious bodies to go for special services and when they need advice or support and to assist their day-to-day running".

The aim of licensing the places of worship is to provide an official unified channel for religious bodies to go to for special services and to assist their day-to-day running

A senior Hindu priest said the ceremony would strengthen trust between the government and religious institutions and was a response to the needs of a diverse society.

"This special ceremony most certainly illustrates the positivity and shining light the UAE government is spreading," said Brahmavihari Swami, who handles international relations for Baps Swaminarayan Sanstha, which is building the new temple in the capital's Abu Mureikhah area.

The marble and sandstone shrine is scheduled to be finished by 2022.

“We feel blessed to have experienced an environment of love, tolerance and harmony from the royal courts, the government departments and the people of UAE," he said.

“It will form a pathway for greater communication and send a clear message that under its shelter, communities don’t just develop, but flourish."

Apart from many mosques, there are more than 40 churches across the UAE, a Sikh gurdwara in Dubai, two small Hindu shrines and a small synagogue also in Dubai.