The first Noel - 65 years of Christmas carols in Abu Dhabi

The story of the first Christian service in the capital, which took place thanks to the kindness and tolerance of Sheikh Shakhbut and the UAE

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Sixty-five years ago this month, with probably fewer than a dozen people in attendance, Abu Dhabi’s small but enthusiastic congregation of Christians gathered for worship for the first time in the living room of a villa, overlooking the sea.

The prayers and songs of praise on that day in 1957 were perhaps the first Christian celebrations to be heard since the time of the early monastery of Sir Bani Yas, which was founded, and later abandoned, more than 1,000 years before.

The service took place as the result of not just the determination of the nascent Christian community to mark the birth of Jesus, but the belief of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time, Sheikh Shakhbut, that people of all faiths were entitled to worship freely.

Over tea, coffee, biscuits and tiny cakes [Sheikh] Shakhbut showed great interest in our Idh (Eid). When Susan mentioned carols, he asked her to lead us in singing one
Roderic Owen

This commitment to religious tolerance was continued by the Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, under whose rule the first purpose-built churches opened in the 1960s, and it has been a part of the UAE ever since. Today, Anglican congregations in the city number over 10,000 each week and many branches of the Christian faith enjoy the freedom of worship not only in Abu Dhabi, but across the UAE.

Rev Andy Thompson is senior chaplain at St Andrews, the first Anglican church to open in Abu Dhabi, founded in the 1960s. The Christian mission in the city can be traced back to that first service more than 65 years ago, he says.

“The prayers and worship of thousands of Christians throughout the decades, the building projects, the multiple opportunities to serve the community, the ongoing bridge-building friendships between Christians and Muslims, it all began at Christmas time with a simple carol service,” he said.

This Abu Dhabi version of the Christmas story begins with the arrival of expatriates, who were here to explore for oil. Many were Christians, not just from Britain and North America, but also from places like Kerala in India. Some came to work and live, others to look and learn.

One of those early visitors was a travel writer from London, Roderic Owen, who was staying with Tim Hillyard, an old friend from university who was then employed by BP to be in charge of offshore oil exploration.

Hillyard had been given a purpose built company house in Abu Dhabi — the first of its kind — and was living with his wife, Susan, and their infant daughter.

The house in Abu Dhabi where the first Anglican Christian service was held in December 1957. Standing in front is Tim Hillyard, head of offshore oil exploration, who lived there with his wife Susan. Photo: BP Archives

Owen, who died in 2011, visited Sheikh Shakhbut at Qasr Al Hosn for the first time in 1955, beginning a friendship that would last until the latter's death in the 1980s. Their conversations included the topic of religion. In his autobiography, published in 2022, Owen recalled that after one of their meetings, the Ruler accepted an invitation to visit the Hillyards on Christmas Day 1955, when they were holding an open house.

“Everyone waited for Sheikh Shakhbut to be the first caller,” Owen wrote. “His new car, a blue Cadillac, was seen churning across the sand in the distance, followed by the maroon Buick belonging to his brother Sheikh Khalid.

“Over tea, coffee, biscuits and tiny cakes (Sheikh) Shakhbut showed great interest in our Idh (Eid), wanting to know exactly what we did to celebrate it.

“When Susan mentioned carols, he asked her to lead us in singing one, so we obliged with Once in Royal David's City.”

Owen said the Ruler asked if his hosts were missing their church service on such an important day. “I’m sorry there isn’t a church for you in Abu Dhabi,” the Ruler said.

Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Khalid on their visit to the expatriate community in Abu Dhabi on Christmas Day 1957. The woman is a visiting American journalist, Molly Thayer.

When they replied that they had assumed a Christian place of worship would be disapproved of in a Muslim country, the Ruler said: “Disapprove? Of course not. You need your religion as we need ours.

“Besides, good as you are, you’d no doubt be better if you went to church and that would be to everyone’s advantage.”

The Ruler’s Christmas Day visit was repeated the following year and Sheikh Shakhbut gave increasing consideration to the spiritual needs of non-Muslims in the emirate.

Susan Hillyard, in her own published account of those years, Before the Oil, recounted a conversation with the Ruler about plans to extend their villa, built by BP, to provide more rooms for the growing number of overseas visitors.

“I don’t suppose the company is reserving one for prayer?” he asked.

“Our bedrooms are considered perfectly adequate for prayer and reading our holy book,” she said. The Sheikh replied that that was “a shame”.

By September 1957, discussions were taking place within the Christian community for an Anglican priest to conduct a religious service around Christmas time. A formal proposal was made to Peter Tripp, the UK’s political agent for Abu Dhabi, which was then still tied to Britain as one of the Trucial States.

The Rev Alun Morris, vicar of St Christopher's in Bahrain who conducted the first Christian service in Abu Dhabi in December 1957 The photo was taken in 1987, near the end of his time in the Arabian Gulf. Photo: Alun Morris

Tripp agreed to fund the cost of flying in Alun Morris, the vicar of St Christopher’s in Bahrain, which was then the centre of British administration in the Arabian Gulf. As a courtesy, it was also decided Morris should first come to Abu Dhabi in late September to discuss the proposal with the Ruler.

“He looked the part with his black beard, white cassock, black shoes with silver buckles,” Mrs Hillyard wrote of that occasion. “His visit to Sheikh Shakhbut went very well. They had a long discussion, finding some matters to agree on and agreeing to disagree on the rest.”

It was decided that the service would take place in the living room of the Hillyard’s house, located back from the beach near what is now the junction of Khalifa bin Zayed The First Street and Sultan bin Zayed The First Street. The exact date is not recorded, but Morris promised at the time that it would be within eight days of Christmas Day. “And so it was,” Mrs Hillyard wrote: “The first Christian service in Abu Dhabi.”

No more than a dozen attended. For Christmas Day that year, Mrs Hillyard recorded in her diary that she was expecting 11 people for a traditional turkey dinner, with a decorated shrub growing near the house standing in for a Christmas tree.

Owen was among the guests. The Ruler and his brother, Sheikh Khalid, were also visitors that Christmas morning, with Owen noting that Sheikh Shakhbut had “thoroughly approved” of the Christian service a few days earlier.

Owen recalls in his autobiography Oh What a Lovely Century, that in another meeting with Sheikh Shakhbut early in 1958, the question of where Christians could pray was raised in a meeting with Sheikh Zayed, who at the time was the Ruler's Representative in the Eastern Region.

“They must have their own church in Abu Dhabi,” he told Sheikh Zayed.

The following year the Christmas service was moved to what is now the British Embassy and four years later, the Ruler donated land for the construction of the city’s first Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic St Joseph’s Cathedral and St Andrew’s Church.

The offer was made on May 13, 1962, at meeting with the Rev Morris, and Edward Henderson, a British diplomat, who recorded: “After a pleasant interview with the Sheikh in his desert fortress, he offered to us a plot of 40,000 square feet and left us free to choose the site. In the afternoon, we selected a central position on the sea front.”

“Christians in the UAE continue to enjoy and celebrate the ruling family’s ongoing commitment to the value of tolerance,” said Rev Thompson.

“Anglicans in particular have cherished the opportunity to be engaged in interfaith dialogue, represent the Christians in the UAE as part of international delegations and to share the story of the inclusive Islamic hospitality that has made the UAE such a special home.”

*A version of this story first appeared in The National in 2017