Thousands of Christians attended a midnight Mass in Dubai as the faithful reflected on a special year and spoke of hope for the future.
At St Mary’s church in Oud Metha, worshippers looked back on Pope Francis visit to the Emirates and the “human fraternity” between all people and religions.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as many as 100,000 Catholics from 60 countries attend services at St Mary’s, the largest church in the Gulf. Many more are attending services in Protestant, Evangelical and other denominations across the country.
The pontiff's visit in February made this is "a historic year and a special Christmas," parish priest Father Lennie Connully told The National.
“God has come to create a global human fraternity,” said Fr Connully, from India.
“This human fraternity is based on accepting everyone with love and respect without looking at their religious, cultural or ethnic background.
“At the close of the Year of Tolerance, we will be focusing on the fact that humans have to come together as one family.”
Between 10,000 and 15,000 were estimated to be at the midnight Mass on Tuesday night.
“We are immensely proud of this country which brought our spiritual leader here gave him a royal welcome,” Fr Connully said of Pope Francis’ visit.
“It was a historic event for us.”
“The government has been very kind, understanding, and accepting of the Christian community here and we are very grateful to them,” he said.
Merrill Correia, 41, an Indian resident who was born and brought up in the UAE, has celebrated Christmas at the same church since he was a child.
He was with his wife and sons, aged 10 and 8, and his daughter, also 8.
“The community has come together to decorate the church and we feel part of a bigger family at the church,” said Mr Correia, who works in IT.
“The spirit of Christmas is truly brought to life at the church and it is amazing to see different nationalities at the church celebrating one faith together.
“They take very good care of us.”
The celebrations have already started at the Correia home, culminating in a grand family lunch on Christmas Day.
About 35 members of the family come together to celebrate and eat traditional food such as turkey, marzipan, cakes and Christmas fruit cake.
“In the past the community was smaller and there wasn’t so much participation,” he said.
“The unity and camaraderie has grown over the years with more people coming forward to celebrate Christmas together as one big family.”
Jose Antony, an retired insurance worker from India, has family visiting from the US and Canada.
“The midnight mass draws a huge crowd every year and the entire compound at the church is full of people,” Mr Antony said.
“God loves all of us equally and we are reminded of this beautiful message on Christmas.
“My family has travelled from Canada and the United States to be with us at Christmas.”
At a Christmas lunch tomorrow, about 25 members of the family will celebrate together.
“Christmas is a reminder of God’s love, peace and fellowship between humans,” he said.
“We get a lot of religious freedom here in the UAE which we would not get in other places,” he said. “I have been in this country for 45 years and I appreciate this about the country.”