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Chaplain appreciates Muslim-Christian relations in Dubai

The World Council of Churches 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea, Oct. 28 to Nov. 9, was an opportunity to meet people and to learn of the ministries they come from and return to do. 

Ruwan Palapathwala
Ruwan Palapathwala facilitates opportunities for Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox to worship.

One person Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp met was the Rev. Ruwan Palapathwala, a native Sri Lankan who is senior chaplain with the Anglican Chaplaincy of Dubai and Sharjah with the Northern Emirates.

Coming to Dubai in 2011 after 19 years of teaching world religions and dialogue, and serving parishes in New Zealand and Australia, Ruwan Palapathwala found the Anglican Chaplaincy a unique opportunity for dialogue through daily life.

That dialogue, he said, dispels Christian-Muslim suspicions, which erupt into violence in other parts of the world.

Dubai is a model of the globalized world,” he said.  “It is a global village in a small place with good security but no guns.”

Most residents are international workers who are professional experts and the workforce for the oil industry, businesses, technology, tourism and education.

Most of the international people are from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, African nations, Europe, Great Britain and North America.  They are among 200 nationalities.

Just 14 percent of the 4 million inhabitants are locals, Ruwan said.

Dubai is a new, modern city, ruled by monarchs.  There are no elections and no taxes. 

There are no ethnic issues.  People respect and honor each other’s different customs, cultures and religions,” he said.  “For example, during Ramadan, no one eats or drinks openly as a sign of respect for the Muslim culture.”

“In a world where there is so much suspicion between Muslims and Christians, I believe dialogue at a fundamental level can inform and help overcome those suspicions.  In Dubai, we co-exist as the Christian church in the Muslim world,” he said.

“Our dialogue is through our daily lives,” Ruwan said.  “We are not there to proselytize.  The churches themselves are also global communities.”

Ruwan explained that the Chaplaincy of Dubai and Sharjah was started 43 years ago in 1969, as more Christians came to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

He describes the chaplaincy as a unique communion of Anglicans and other mainline Protestant churches from around the world that is constituted within the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, in the Episcopal Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

“The ruler of the UAE granted the church land in 1969.  It was once in the middle of the desert and now is in the hub of Dubai,” said Ruwan.  “We host all mainline Protestant denominations.  Roman Catholics and Orthodox also have their own churches.”

While the main church is Anglican and part of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, the church compound has 21 halls to facilitate worship for more than 35,000 people in 115 congregations, worshiping from 6 a.m. to midnight in 28 languages at Holy Trinity Church in Dubai. 

St. Martin’s Church in Sharjah draws about 20,000 people in 80 congregations.  Christ Church at Jebel Ali and Academic City draws 15,000 in 40 congregations to worship Thursday evenings to Sundays.  At St. Luke’s Church in Ras Al Kahaimah, there are 45 congregations.  St. Nicholas’ Church in Fujairah is a mission post.

The chaplaincy facilitates 325 congregations—Protestant, Anglican, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox and the Church of South India.

“We provide hospitality for other churches, because Anglicans and Roman Catholics are the only churches recognized in the UAE.  There are more than 100,000 Protestants and 200,000 Roman Catholics,” he said.

The churches have been built on land given as a result of dialogue between Anglican Christians and the UAE rulers, acknowledging the commitment of the Christians who are investing their talents to build up the UAE.

Ruwan is the senior priest of the chaplaincy.  Four other Anglican priests serve churches.  Three are British, and one is Indian.

As senior priest, he fulfills an ambassadorial role for the church and its work to build cordial relations with the UAE rulers and to facilitate coexistence with Muslims. 

He works closely with the consul generals and ambassadors of various countries to extend the churches’ ministry to the expatriate community.

“I am the first Asian-born senior priest to be appointed to this post,” said Ruwan, who was born in Sri Lanka, and also lived in Australia and New Zealand.

“With Dubai at the heart of the Muslim world, our co-existence moves us to a future of seeing how Christian witness at the heart of the Muslim world can engage us in dialogue with Muslim neighbors.

Rulers give us freedom to worship God,” he said.  “Some might not expect that the Muslim world would have such openness to Christians.”

Ruwan said that the chaplaincy presents the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a world of conflicts, violence, financial crises and environmental catastrophes, helping people recognize the “enormity of these changes in the world, as we seek to equip ourselves to live meaningfully, to engage in dialogue with the world around us, our neighbors and ourselves, and to pray for and work with the rulers, leaders and authorities to seek strategies and solutions to improve the lives of all people as global citizens.”

He said the UAE depends on the work and expertise of people from around the world for their prosperity. 

“There is no poverty.  No one can live there without a job,” said Ruwan, who served 12 years as a parish priest and academic in Melbourne, Australia.

After studying in Kandy, Sri Lanka, he taught religious studies at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also served six congregations in New Zealand.

Ruwan, who studied systematic theology related to dealing with other religions, wrote his doctoral thesis in 1999 on the German-American theologian Paul Tillich and how his theology influences ways to engage with other faiths. 

He did research for this thesis at Andover Newton Library at Harvard Divinity School in Boston.

In 2001, he moved to Melbourne and taught pastoral theology in an Anglican seminary at the University of Melbourne and world religions at the University of Divinity. 

He took the opportunity to serve in the UAE as a challenge to put his skills in interfaith dialogue into practice in the Arab world.

“In dialogue, I see how deep understanding of faith traditions informs us and provides a path for understanding Islamic and Christian civilizations, and their contributions to the globalized world,” said Ruwan.

Along with the dialogue in people’s everyday lives, he said the chaplaincy is also constructing a dialogue center at St. Luke’s Church in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaima to promote theological dialogue and education, leadership training and retreats that include dialogue experiences.

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Copyright © June 2014 - The Fig Tree