Visiting seven churches during Holy Week is a panata (religious vow) Rainier Vibar, 67, has been observing for about three decades – owing to the observance of tolerance and religious freedom in the UAE.

The tradition is called Visita Iglesia (visiting seven churches) – a pious practice among Filipino Catholics dating back to the 16th century. Like in the Philippines, Visita Iglesia is best done in groups, so Vibar and his wife, Teodora, joined the Divine Mercy Apostolate that set off for their one-day religious tour of seven churches in the UAE as early as 4am this week.

There are now actually 10 Catholic churches in the UAE, including St. Joseph's Cathedral in Abu Dhabi; St Mary's Catholic Church in Dubai; St Mary's Church in Al Ain; St Paul's Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi; St John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ruwais, Abu Dhabi; St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Jebel Ali; St Michael's Church in Sharjah; St Anthony of Padua Church in Ras al Khaimah; Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Fujairah; and St Francis Church inside the Abrahamic Family House, that is also home to Ahmed El Tayeb Mosque and Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue.

"Visita Iglesia is about remembering the suffering and passion of Jesus Christ," noted Vibar, sharing: "We visit the churches to pray. In the Philippines, some devotees walk barefoot from church to church. Some carry a cross as their way of sharing the sufferings of Jesus on his way to crucifixion. But in the UAE, we do church visits in groups, and that bolsters the community spirit."

"We pray and make our panata for thanksgiving, repentance and personal intentions, including good health for our family, loved ones and friends," Vibar, who is a long-time restaurant owner in Dubai, told Khaleej Times.

About 50 members of the Divine Mercy Apostolate joined the Visita Iglesia from Dubai to Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, and they concluded their visit at the Abrahamic House in Abu Dhabi.

"The highlight of the observance of Holy Week is Good Friday and will continue until Black Saturday, culminating on Easter Sunday – which is all about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We thank the UAE and its leaders for allowing us to openly practice our faith,' noted Vibar, whose group will celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday after Easter.

Strengthened by faith

Policarpio Tinaja, 57, and his wife, Myles, 59, also joined the pilgrimage. They said what made their Visita Iglesia more special was the camaraderie of the group. "Our devotion is strengthened by our brothers and sisters in faith, and the Visita Iglesia is a good practice for meditating and expressing our belief in God," said Tinaja, who first came to the UAE in 1998.

He also reiterated their recent Visita Iglesia was a testament to the diversity of faith and religious tolerance in the UAE.

"We were a group of Christians who travelled by bus and our driver was a Pakistani Muslim who was fasting that day. It was a humid day and some of us were eating and drinking, and our driver did not feel offended. And when he ended his fast, he even offered us some dates," Tinaja, who is the head of ushers at St Mary's Church in Oud Metha, recalled.

"Another fitting moment was when we concluded our Visita Iglesia at the Abrahamic Family House, which is home to a church, mosque, and synagogue. This compound symbolises what the country promotes, which is not only about diversity but also about embracing humanity and mutual religious understanding.

Prayers for peace

For Rod Palomar, "It is imperative to include prayers for peace in the region, particularly in Palestine, this holy week, which also takes place during Ramadan."

"Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Palestine – and we only see in Gaza war, violence, and people displaced and hungry. As a people of faith, we pray for ceasefire and restoration of human dignity as we go on our collective journey of Visita Iglesia following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ," he added.

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