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Church announces first temple in Middle East, students discuss the UAE’s religiously inclusive community

The Burj Al Arab in Dubai with the Dubai skyline in the background.

Just before the closing hymn at the April 2020 General Conference, which included a worldwide, multi-lingual choir singing “We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet,” President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced eight new temples. The temples announced included one in Dubai, United Arab Emirates– the Church’s first official temple in the Middle East, according to Church Newsroom.

“I was speechless at first, then I started to cry and just couldn’t stop crying until conference was over,” said Trisha Panzo, a senior from Qatar studying psychology and graphic design.

In his announcement, President Nelson said the plan for a temple in Dubai came as a response to an invitation from the UAE government.

“It was a very exciting thing to see the place where I grew up,” said Panzo. “But it’s happening now, and it’s so exciting.”

A sunset descends upon the desert in Dubai.

Anela Camacho, a Hauula community member who currently resides in Dubai with her family, said she was also surprised by the announcement. Because it was broadcast in a different time zone, Camacho said most members, including herself, were asleep when it was announced.

“Our phones were blowing up with texts from family and friends, and so we were not sleeping after that.

“Our stake president asked us sometime last year to fast and pray as a ward, and I think as a stake … So we’ve been fasting and praying for a long time actually, several months, and then to have this announcement, it is such a miracle. The Lord hears and answers prayers, so it was surprising, yet not when you think about the way the Lord works.”

Religious tolerance in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates is a country in the Middle East, comprised of seven separate emirates, or city-states, with a rich history tied to Islam and, according to the UAE Embassy website, more than 75 percent of its residents are Muslim.

Camacho said she has noticed that the UAE emphasizes tolerance, even declaring the year 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance” and building a bridge in connection to those efforts.

Following the announcement, the UAE Embassy in the United States tweeted, “The UAE welcomes this very important milestone. This new house of worship will join the diverse gathering of other religions in the UAE, where we welcome multi-national congregations and have built houses of worship throughout our country.

“This includes the recently announced Abrahamic Family House, which will include a church, mosque and synagogue in Abu Dhabi to create mutual understanding among people of all faiths and belief systems.”

Camacho said of the government there, “It’s quite wonderful because they don’t just say it, but they practice it, they really honor their word.”

When she and her family first moved to Dubai for her husband’s job, Camacho said they were very excited to find a ward and a stake, local congregations of expatriates who meet for church services. Unlike U.S. congregations, however, Camacho explained they attend church on Fridays and have been meeting in a villa instead of a typical meetinghouse.

The Grand Mosque at night in Abu Dhabi.

“Our stake, the Abu Dhabi Stake, includes different countries. It’s more of a stake of the region, so we get to interact and serve with members of more than just the United Arab Emirates, but members in the region,” said Camacho.

“A blessing like this will be a blessing for everyone in this region … Members here are from all over the world.” In her congregation, she estimated there are about 20 different nationalities represented.

According to Church Newsroom, the temple will be built in District 2020– an area that will host the World Expo 2020, which has since been postponed due to COVID-19. According to their website, District 2020 plans to integrate several neighborhoods that include innovative workspaces, residential areas and cultural attractions.

The World Expo 2020 site in Dubai with a lit pathway and skyscrapers in the background.

“Both my hands went into the air, that’s for sure,” said Sam Merrill, a senior from Alaska studying biology, of his reaction to the news of the Dubai Temple. Merrill explained he moved with his family to the capital of UAE, Abu Dhabi, just before his senior year of high school.

“I was super stoked about [the new temple], obviously. I thought it was really cool how President Nelson said that the country invited them to build there. There’s been a lot of interfaith things that the UAE has done there looking to really diversify and accept all religions there … It’s a really awesome country. The Emirati people and the government really love everyone.”

Roche Donato, a senior from Qatar studying exercise and sports science, said he saw this historic announcement as a sign of the world becoming more accepting. “The world is starting to change for a better cause,” said Donato.

Donato explained a temple in Dubai would bless many members of that region, who often travel far to attend the temple, either to their own respective countries or the nearest temples in Ukraine and Germany.

Camacho added when she first moved to Dubai, she was a little unsure what it would be like to live so far away from a temple. Because their assigned temple in Frankfurt, Germany was closed for renovation when they arrived, they were assigned to the Kyiv Ukraine Temple.

The Dubai skyline with the Burj Khalifa towering above all the buildings.

However, Camacho said she quickly learned there were other ways of keeping herself connected to the temple.

“My stake president, before I came here, said to be active in family history work, that [would be my] tie to the temple blessings. I thought about that, and it gave me such comfort, so we tried to do that here.

“It has been a blessing to realize how much I miss the temple and living close to one, so [I learned] it’s good if you take something away because then you’ll appreciate it more.

“I’m anticipating in my own mind that the growth of family history work will bless this region. I don’t know how their ties to their ancestors are, but … the local people are very family-oriented, so I can see that family history work and genealogy work will be very important to them. I think that is something they will value.”