More than 3,000 worshippers attended the Christmas service at St Anthony’s Orthodox Cathedral for Coptic Egyptians in Abu Dhabi. They prayed for tolerance and peace on earth.
Copts observe Christmas on January 7, as do most Orthodox churches.
“Our Christmas message is Jesus Christ’s message to all the world, to all the humanity over all the world,” said Father Abram Farouk, one of the cathedral's two priests, before the service. “Jesus Christ was born just to give us light, to give us peace, to give us his soul.”
Government officials, including the Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak and the Egyptian ambassador Wael Gad, attended the service. It is estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 Egyptian Christian Copts live in the UAE.
For men like Ashaia Haroun, the tolerance of the UAE compared to the violence seen elsewhere regionally has made the Emirates a second home.
“I was talking to the chief of the Islamic Foundation and he said that we learn from our sheikhs and we saw that our sheikhs they are open-minded,” said Mr Haroun, a Cathedral committee member. “They know that if God wanted to make the whole world one religion, he could. God can. But if God allows differences in religion and faith, who are we to oppose God?”
Batroos Wajeh Atea, 26, and Corolis Samweer, 31, took a two-hour bus journey from Madinat Zayed to attend the service on Saturday.
The men, who work in interior design, will spend Christmas Day today in the office but will stay with friends in Abu Dhabi overnight.
“At Christmas in Egypt people die. It is always like that,” Mr Atea. He said his church in Egypt was often closed because of violence.
A gunman killed two Copts in Giza, Egypt on New Year's Day. Nine people were murdered on December 29 when another gunman attacked people at a household appliance shop and attempted to storm a Coptic church in Helwan, south of Cairo.
More than 100 Christians were killed in Egypt in 2016, according to the BBC.
“As Christians, we are dealing with the people as men of God,” Father Farouk said. "So all creations, all the people anywhere, if they are attacked, it is an attack on us. We pray for all the world. Peace for all the world, peace for Egypt, for Emirates, for all the world.”
Christmas is a time of celebration, but those who lost their lives in attacks this year were also remembered during Saturday’s service.
“We have people who lost their brother, their father, their uncle. It is really very painful,” said Mr Haroun.
“There is no religion in the world that tells you to kill a person that God created. We pray. This is the only way we know. We thank God that he put us in a place in UAE, a place which is safe and a place which is really taking care of us.”
Mr Haroun celebrates his 40th anniversary in the UAE this week. That same year, the first Coptic priest arrived to serve Abu Dhabi, although a church would not be built for another seven years.
“Once we had a church, the people started multiplying,” recalls Mr Haroun.
A new church opened in April 2007, funded in part by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on land donated by the government.
Last year, Christian churches were given the right to grant marriages, mediate and grant divorce and handle child custody and inheritance for non-Muslims as part of law reforms by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs.
The cathedral complex was busy all weekend in preparations for Christmas Eve.
Iman Ibrahim, a Canadian who works at the American International School, was at the church on Friday, wrapping presents for her family.
“For us, Christmas simply means that Jesus was born into our hearts and into our lives.”