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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Catholic Sisters, Pioneers of Education in UAE

Sister Madeleine Dababneh Illustrates What Really Is the State of Religious Freedom and Tolerance in the Emirates

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The Sisters of the Rosary are the pioneers in education in the United Arab Emirates, locals and outsiders say.
Jordanian Sister Madeleine Dababneh, who belongs to the Rosary Congregation, and had been living in UAE for 19 years, said this in an exclusive interview with Zenit whose Senior Vatican Correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov is in the United Arab Emirates and has been part of the Pope’s press corps, accompanying him on the papal flight.
Sister Madeleine, who took her first vows in Jerusalem in 1975, has been in the field of education since 1978 and is currently principal of a Catholic school.
Sister will be one of two sisters to meet and accompany Pope Francis in his private visit to St Joseph Parish in Abu Dhabi.
In the interview, she expresses after 19 years living in the Arab Muslim nation why she feels grateful and free to live her faith, and never threatened. She discusses the religious freedom in the country and the government’s commitment and openness to welcoming other religions, as well as all the active work of the Catholic community in the area, especially of her and her fellow sisters.
Here is our interview, done on the ground, in Abu Dhabi:
ZENIT: Sister, what does this visit mean to you?
This visit is a special occasion for me both personally and as a resident of the UAE. As a person and a nun, this is the Father coming to meet his children. I feel proud and honored that I will be able to meet our Holy Father, who is coming to meet his flock. The pontiff is the harbinger of peace and this iconic visit will be a trailblazer and a model for world peace.
ZENIT: So you will not only see, but meet the Pope?
Yes, we have been invited to meet the Holy Father when he pays a private visit to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi. Two sisters, including myself, will be going with five of our students and two teachers to meet the pontiff.
ZENIT: The Sisters of the Rosary are the pioneers in education in UAE, I have been told, can you explain what has earned you this noble reputation?
The Rosary Congregation was established in 1880 in Jerusalem for serving the faithful in the Arab countries. The aim was to serve the public and give back to the local community through setting up schools, cultural centers, and hospitals. The congregation also established teaching centers for tailoring and needlework for women. Over time, the congregation has made a name for itself in the field of education and now has branches in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Rome, Egypt, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
One of the outstanding features of the Rosary Schools is the very high standard of pastoral care offered by the Sisters and attention to health, safety and protection. Therefore, admission to any of the institutions is much sought after, and passing out of Rosary School is a matter of pride in the local community.
ZENIT: How did your initiatives begin?
Rosary School, was set up in 1969 in Abu Dhabi, two years before the federation was formed. Initially we were on the Corniche and later in 1982, we shifted to our present premises in the heart of the city. In total, we have 3 schools in the UAE, one in Abu Dhabi and 2 in Sharjah, in the Northern Emirates. Rosary School, Abu Dhabi is one of the few schools offering Arabic medium of instruction. As a matter of fact, 2019 is an important year for us, as we will be celebrating our golden jubilee. We can very proudly acknowledge that approximately 4000 students have graduated from our school.
ZENIT: Can you tell us more exactly about what you and the sisters do?
The school management comprises 5 sisters; the Principal (myself), and 4 sisters. In addition to the smooth running of the school, the sisters also cater to the Arab Christian children in the UAE. We work closely with the church and its related activities. I am also actively involved with the Legion of Mary in our parish.
ZENIT: Have you met resistance?
The leadership of the UAE has always been very supportive of all our activities.
ZENIT: Have you had to be private?
The faithful have enjoyed total freedom of worship and the opportunity to celebrate religious festivals.
ZENIT: To what extent would you say there is religious tolerance, based on what you have observed in your work? And also in practicing your own faith?
Tolerance is an intrinsic part of Islamic culture. More than 200 nationalities live in harmony and peace in the UAE, which in itself is an example of a tolerant and inclusive country. In fact, H. H. Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, ordered the renaming of the Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, to ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus Mosque’, which is next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
The UAE is the only country that has a Ministry of Tolerance, headed by His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. Moral Education is part of the curriculum and values like Tolerance and Respect for all religions are inculcated from a young age.
I think the above provides ample proof of the open-mindedness and liberal thinking of the leaders of the UAE.
ZENIT: How does a Catholic live their faith in UAE? Is it difficult? Why?
There is a multitude of opportunities available for the faithful to practice their religion in peace and harmony. Many people are not aware that there is a large Christian community which exists in the UAE. In fact, there are almost a million Catholics living here. Demographically, the largest of these are the Filipinos and the Indians followed by the Arab expat community. The sisters also teach catechism to the Arab expat community.
There are 9 parishes in the country that started under the guidance and support of the late Sheikh Zayed and have flourished under the UAE leadership. There are three parishes in Abu Dhabi; two churches in Abu Dhabi, one in Mussafah and one in Al Ain, all under the lordship of Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia.
Three masses are held daily and obligatory masses are spread over three days Fridays, Saturdays, the official weekend in the UAE, and Sundays. The churches are packed on these days; close to 70,000 people attend these weekly obligatory masses. At Christmas and Easter, there are masses throughout the day, in over 10 languages. Twenty-five masses were celebrated on Christmas Day, this year.
Weekly catechism classes are available in English, Arabic and French. They are prepared for their First Holy Communion by the nuns of St. Joseph’s School, assisted by the lay ministers. All sacraments are available to the catholic community.
ZENIT: What are your hopes for the Pope’s visit? And for what the Pope will say? What should he address?
We thank H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, for this great initiative. This is the first ever visit by a Pope to the UAE. Approximately 135,000 people are slated to attend the papal mass of which 29,000 are from the Abu Dhabi parish alone. This is an indicator of the impact of this visit on the region. I feel the Holy Father will continue with his mission of spreading peace and harmony. I think he will speak of Man’s connection with God irrespective of religion. Interfaith dialogue and tolerance will be the underlying theme of his address. He will truly be a Channel of Peace.
ZENIT: Anything else you would like to add, Sister?
Once again, I wish to express my sincere appreciation and gratitude to the leadership of the UAE for this great initiative in this Year of Tolerance. May peace, love and harmony continue to reign in the UAE!

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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