Passion week in Abu Dhabi (Photo)
by Bernardo Cervellera

Thousands of faithful participate in the different masses. Palm Sunday celebrated on Friday and Saturday to to allow for workers to attend and given the impossibility of gathering all the faithful together at one time. For the Easter Sunday there will be 23 masses in 13 languages, from 5.30 am until midnight. The economic crisis and the unemployed. Bishop Hinder: The Master needs us.

Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) - Indians from Kerala and Goa; Filipinos from Manila and Mindanao; Koreans and Polynesians, Africans from Nigeria and Tanzania; and then Britons, Italians, French, Germans, Americans: This is the mixture of faces and races that fills the large courtyard in front of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, for the celebration of Palm Sunday in this Islamic country that is Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

A crowd of thousands of people gather around the bishop, Msgr. Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of southern Arabia, who is preparing to bless the palms, in memory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. These are real palm leaves (needles) - the only tree that grows here in abundance - graceful and embellished with some colored flowers, white, yellow, or red rose.

In the days leading up to Palm Sunday there were thousands of faithful, all foreigners, all Catholics, who occupied the halls and the two churches - of Saint Joseph and Saint Teresa - close to the episcopate.

"Here in Abu Dhabi we have been celebrating Palm Sunday since last Friday," says Capuchin Fr. Gandolf, personal secretary of Msgr. Hinder, who has spent 14 years in the Emirates. Indeed, in Abu Dhabi, Friday is a day of celebration; on Saturday you work half a day; Sunday is a full working day.

The faithful who are in the emirates are migrants who have found work here as waiters, nurses, cooks, babysitters, drivers, managers ... Given that it is not easy to get vacation or rest time from work to devote to prayer, the celebration of the holy day was spread out: some managed to come to mass on Fridays, others on Saturdays, others on Sundays.

On the other hand, if they all came together, there would be no possibility of gathering tens of thousands of faithful at the same time. The exception was during the visit of Pope Francis in February, when for the first time in the history of the emirates, permission was given for a mass in a public place, in the stadium ..., which brought together over 100 thousand people. Instead the standard practice is that Christian rites must be celebrated indoors, or within the church enclosure.

Usually the tens of thousands of faithful share the spaces: the churches, the courtyard, a room on the first floor, the back yard. Each linguistic community is given an hour and a half for the celebration. The sign indicating the Easter Sunday times is impressive: 23 masses in 13 languages, to be celebrated between 5.30 am and midnight!

As the procession of palms advances, hundreds of faithful preceded her to sit on the carefully ordered plastic chairs. An African girl, in silence, looks motionless at the crucifix in the center of the altar. At the beginning of Passion Week, it is easy to feel close to Jesus in suffering. Some faithful tell me that due to the prolonged low oil price, various companies in the emirates are closing and are unable to pay their employees. For many of them, having arrived here with their family, it means having to go home empty-handed, or waiting for better times, struggling to survive. Anthony, a man from Kerala, who has worked here for years, has not received a salary for 6 months.

The reading of the Passion and the melody of the song is poignant: my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

In the homily, Msgr. Hinder is inspired by the phrase of the disciples who, in search of the donkey for Jesus to mount at the entrance to Jerusalem, say: "The Master needs it". And the bishop concludes: "The Master, Jesus, also needs us, as we are". The Master needs all these Christians who in an Islamic society support its development and humanize the features that are profoundly marked by the world of business. And it also needs the unemployed, who reveal the fragility of economic programs: a fragility that brings suffering if the labor laws  - which also exist in the emirates - are not applied.

At Communion time, rows of Indian and Filipino altar boys take priests to different areas of the courtyard to distribute the Eucharist. The choir of Filipinos sings accompanied by the flute and violins of some Indian girls.

At the end of the celebration, people fade out quietly, smiling and chatting, waiting for Easter and resurrection. The many children chase each other shaking their palms with roses. Meanwhile, in the church of St. Joseph and in that of St. Teresa two more masses are about to begin, with thousands of faithful.