Arabian Peninsula’s monumental church
By Matters India Reporter
Sharjah: In a country dotted with majestic mosques, the Russian Orthodox Church in Sharjah is truly a sight to behold for visitors and residents alike.
Since opening its doors in August 2011, the St Philip the Apostle Orthodox Church in Sharjah emirate of the UAE has become a pillar of support for the Russian expatriate community living in the country, say church leaders.
The 1,800 square-meter complex in Al Yarmook area is not only a church, but a cultural hub, they say.
Al Yarmook area in Sharjah has been earmarked for churches belonging to different denominations and countries, so one can come across the Armenian, Ethiopian, Anglican and Indian churches in a neat stretch of land.
Standing tall and regal among them, the Russian church is a picture of beauty with five blue domes and gold gilded cross atop them dazzling in the desert sun. The church is a popular tourist destination for Christian visitors to Dubai and Sharjah, but it is also open to non-Russian visitors only on Saturdays 9-5 and not during service hours.
Indians used to leaving their footwear outside holy places may find it uncomfortable that they are instructed to keep their footwear on inside the church.
The complex can accommodate up to 3,000 worshipers and is the largest Russian Orthodox Church in the region, and the first in the UAE. There are approximately 20,000 Russians residing in the UAE who are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Hundreds of worshippers spill into the church weekly not only to reaffirm their faith but to commune with fellow church-goers from across the former Soviet Union.
“People come here to find support, be it religious or personal, from other church goers. There are people who are going through personal problems or job loss, so they come here looking for a helping hand from people of their community. Together, we try our best to help each other,” said a woman member of the choir.
Talks on the construction first began in May 2005 with the visit of the first official delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church, led by the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.
Construction on the project started in September 2007 after Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, allotted the land to the Russian Orthodox community. Sheikh Sultan had, in April 2007, approved the blueprints of the church, which showed both domes and crosses.
The church was named after St Philip since he was the first of the apostles to preach in eastern Europe in the first century.
The church was financed by a prominent businessman, Yuri Sidorenko, who serves as its warden. Sidorenko said the building was constructed for the 200,000 Orthodox Church members living in the country — mostly in Sharjah.
The church caters to about three weddings a month and offers baptisms three times a week. The church also serves as an educational and social centre, offering religious classes in addition to language courses for children. The courses cater to children who were born in the UAE and are not very fluent in the Russian language.
“When I was working on the designs, I based the drawings on one of the churches in St Petersburg. The layout and the architectural structure is almost identical, and I ensured that there would be ample space for a living quarter, gatherings and classrooms,” said Yuri Kirs, one of the architects of the church. There are three priests living on the premises.
Inside, one of the walls is adorned with images of religious icons in ornate golden frames. Called the Wall of Icons, it separates the church from the altar. The wall is made of Indian teak wood, carved and plated with gold leaf in the UAE. Each of the icons was painted in Moscow and brought to Sharjah.
Before heading out, it will be worthwhile to lift your head skywards and marvel at a large painted fresco of St Philip adorning the high domed ceiling in the center, there are also four smaller frescoes of Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
For those who like keepsakes, there is a counter selling pictures of Jesus and the saints as well as other liturgical objects and scarves.