February, 1968, and St Andrew’s church opens on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche to serve a fledgling community of oil and gas workers.
It was an early indication of the religious freedom that would be enjoyed by many faiths when the UAE was formed three years later.
Now, that Anglican church is celebrating five decades of bridge-building.
Hundreds attended a celebration in Mushrif – where the church moved to in the 1980s – yesterday, including Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance, Michael Lewis, the Anglican Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf, and Andy Thompson, chaplain at St Andrew's.
“St Andrew’s has been a valued member of the Abu Dhabi community for 50 years,” said Sheikh Nahyan.
“From its humble beginnings on the Corniche to this location, it is a shining example of selfless dedication to the community.”
The service included speeches, songs of praise and prayers.
Leaders from the Roman Catholic Church, Sikh, evangelical and other faith communities attended, alongside long-serving staff and members of the congregation.
Wale Buraimoh has been attending services at St Andrew’s for about seven years.
“It is diverse and people of all races and all nations attend. That is enriching and rewarding,” said Mr Buraimoh, a British citizen who is also a warden at the church.
Hans Schiller from Germany, who has been coming to St Andrew’s for almost two years, said it felt amazing to see such peace and harmony.
“We feel like a family and the church feels very much like a community,” he said.
Surender Singh Kandhari, chairman of the Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh temple in Dubai, said he came to share the moment with his friends.
“I do inter-faith work with [Rev Andy Thompson],” he said. “I’m proud to be here tonight.”
The roots between the UAE and the Anglican community are deep and historic.
It was in the late 1950s that the first Anglican religious leader came to the UAE. The Ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time, Sheikh Shakhbut, even listened to Christmas carols sung by the early Christian residents. Land was donated and St Andrew's opened in 1968 close to where Al Ain tower stands today.
“It is remarkable that the Arab leaders of the time donated land even before they became a state. We are older than the UAE,” Rev Thompson said.
“We are celebrating a long tradition of tolerance in a region that, let’s be honest, is not known for it.”
That first church on the Corniche became a centre for the Christian community. Korean nurses, Indian teachers, Pakistani engineers and European diplomats all attended.
Aside from its own services, which hundreds attend, today St Andrew’s hosts more than 50 congregations, from Ethiopian Orthodox to Nepali evangelical.
“Rather than keep this facility for your own use, you have opened your church and many congregations have found a home here,” said Sheikh Nahyan.
The church hosts weddings and baptisms and provides spiritual comfort in times of personal tragedy.
St Andrew’s also hosts a thrift centre where people on lower incomes can acquire clothes and household items for a small sum.
“It is a very popular place,” said Mr Buraimoh. “And it is so busy we are looking to extend its hours.”
St Andrew’s is planning new places of worship in Mussaffah and Al Ain.
To mark its 50th anniversary, it chose bridge-building as its motif and the fact more than 50 congregations worship there is a testament to that.
"I think it's an extraordinary privilege to rub shoulders with the global church in the same space every week," Rev Thompson said.
“Where else in the world do you get the privilege where Ethiopian Orthodox are rubbing shoulders with the newest Nigerian Pentecostal church? We also see bridge-building between Christians and Muslims as an essential activity.”
St Andrew’s longest-serving member of staff is Bernardo Gomes.
Mr Gomes, 62, is from Goa and has been working at St Andrew’s for 33 years.
He participated in the planting of a ghaf sapling in the church’s courtyard before the ceremony.
“I hope the tree thrives and provides shade for those who continue the development of St Andrew’s,” said Sheikh Nahyan. “The future looks very good indeed.”