In the desert of Dubai, an LDS temple will rise. Here’s how it came to be and why it matters.

The faith’s first temple in the Middle East comes to a Muslim nation seeking to make religious diversity its calling card.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The first chapel built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 7, 2022.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates • The interior of the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Abu Dhabi — the first one built by the church in the Middle East — looks like something out of Provo.

Wooden pews neatly lined up. A podium at the front. Sacrament table off to the side. Blue carpet.

But the towering exterior boasts multiple stories, a dome-shaped roof and arched windows. And the people in the pews? Think a mini-meeting of the United Nations.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this ultramodern country of sleek skyscrapers and streamlined highways, hail from across Africa, South America, Asia, Australia, Europe, and, of course, North America.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The interior of this meetinghouse in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 7, 2022, has a familiar look to other Latter-day Saint chapels.

One group, though, is noticeably absent in this panoply of worshippers: Emiratis.

That’s partly because the UAE is an Islamic nation, and conversion to any other faith is punishable by death, and partly because only 11% of its 10 million residents are Emiratis.

“We are sensitive to the culture and to government restrictions,” says Scott Halverson, a counselor in the Latter-day Saints’ Abu Dhabi Stake (regional) presidency. “We want to make sure that the Islamic people are protected, while they allow us the freedom to practice our faith.”

At this moment in history, the UAE is working hard to establish itself as a citadel of tolerance in the Islamic world. The arid country on the Persian Gulf was, after all, a signatory of the historic 2020 Abraham Accords, a treaty that opened up its relations with Israel.

The pact recognized that “the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham,” and the parties agreed “to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and peoples of all faiths, denominations, beliefs and nationalities live in, and are committed to, a spirit of coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect.”

Now the UAE is erecting a visual monument in Abu Dhabi to the three monotheistic faiths in a space known as the Abrahamic Family House, which includes a synagogue, a church and a mosque, and is slated to open later this year.

With that openness, Halverson says, comes plenty of opportunities for Latter-day Saints in five UAE wards (congregations) and one branch to serve alongside other faith groups.

Members have handed out water flasks to blue-collar workers in the parched land. They have served meals during Muslim iftar meals at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. And they have helped clear up misconceptions about Mormonism.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

“We try to create a safe space for others to ask questions about us,” says Karyn Halverson, Scott’s wife and president of the stake women’s Relief Society. “I have been able to set the record straight with other Christians who ask if we believe in Jesus.”

Such dialogues with friends and neighbors have helped her understand Islam better as well.

“I work side by side with Muslims and Emiratis and see what we have in common — devotion to faith, family and modest dress,” says Karyn, who teaches at an international school. “It has been an eye-opener how important it is to understand what others believe.”

For their part, Latter-day Saints Otso and Amanda Fristrom have fallen in love with Dubai after moving there from Finland.

Though their congregations are always changing — people moving in and out — and despite having to continue to meet virtually as they don’t yet have their own building in Dubai, they can’t imagine leaving.

“There is no need to go anywhere else,” says Otso, bishop of the Dubai Second Ward, who arrived here in 2013.

And soon there will be a Latter-day Saint temple just minutes away — the faith’s first in the Middle East.

How the planned temple came to be

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Latter-day Saints Giovanni Criscione, chief protocol officer for the World Expo and his wife, Rachael Criscione.

The chance to build a Latter-day Saint temple in an Islamic nation — off-limits to any proselytizing — was born of hard work, invaluable connections, being in the right place at the right time, and, to believers, guided by the hand of God.

Some of that is due to the efforts of Giovanni Criscione, who has belonged to the Utah-based faith since his mother joined in Sicily when he was 8.

Criscione had a peripatetic career in international relations, which took him back and forth across the Atlantic, while he built his reputation as a lawyer, professor, protocol manager, diplomatic consultant and public relations expert.

In 2003, he helped prepare for the open house of the Manhattan Temple, tapping friendships he had developed earlier at the U.N. Barely a year later, he was hired first to work with diplomats and other dignitaries in Rome at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. For the next decade, he was employed by Milan’s Expo 2015, meeting with heads of state and VIPs like the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush.

Then, in 2016, he was offered a job as the head of protocol for the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

At that time, it was just an empty space like a blank slate, Criscione recalls in an interview. Nothing had been built on the site. There was only sand everywhere, but the UAE had a grandiose vision for it.

Criscione moved to Dubai in August 2016.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The location of the announced Latter-day Saint temple in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 7, 2022, somewhere on the grounds of the Expo 2020 site.

On entering the villa where Latter-day Saints met in Dubai, he was warmly welcomed by the bishop, and, during the meeting, speakers mentioned a visit by apostle Jeffery R. Holland, who reportedly told the congregation, “If you are here, the Lord has sent you here for a purpose.”

By the end of 2016, Criscione had moved his family (his wife, Rachael, and three children) to this burgeoning Middle East nation.

As he huddled with UAE officials about plans for the expo, he started exploring what he thought was a crazy idea at that time — to bring The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square to perform at the global gathering.

Earlier, while in Utah, he had pitched the idea to church representatives, while also talking up the global show that was supposed to begin in October 2020.

They were all for it.

By 2019, Criscione helped arrange meetings between his friends in the UAE government and Latter-day Saint authorities, including apostle David A. Bednar and general authorities for the area, Larry S. Kacher and Anthony D. Perkins.

In October, Kacher and his wife, Pauline, were in Dubai and were given a tour of the expo site by Reem Ebrahim Al Hashimy, minister of state for international cooperation. She played a “pivotal role,” Criscione says, in facilitating all the permits and authorization for building the temple on the site.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle David A. Bednar and his wife, Susan, visits Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

When Kacher had finished the tour and was walking back to the car, he stopped, closed his eyes and “started praying to thank the Lord and bless the Expo 2020 site as the consecrated land to host the [future] House of the Lord in Dubai,” the Italian protocol officer recalls. “The [Holy] Spirit was so strong. I am so glad I had my dear Emirati friend Mohammad by my side to experience the same feelings of peace and joy.”

After the UAE government gave its final approval, President Russell M. Nelson announced the planned temple at the faith’s April 2020 General Conference to the shock and delight of church members.

By then, sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled, or at least postponed, plans for the expo.

Not to be deterred, Criscione says, “I never give up.”

Earlier this year, Dubai hosted a successful world gathering, which attracted giant crowds from 192 countries to its futuristic exhibits.

The Latter-day Saint temple with an adjoining meetinghouse will find a home somewhere on the site, which has now been mostly leveled. The temple will serve 8,000 Latter-day Saints living in two stakes in the Gulf states and a number of congregations in the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and western Asia.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The skyline of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, April 7, 2022.

The area will be known as District 2020, which is described as a “human-centric future city,” and will be “home to an inclusive and diverse community seeking a more balanced way of life — a place that prioritizes well-being, inspires new ideas, facilitates growth and enables human potential.”

She has never lived “in a place with easy access to a temple,” says Amanda Fristrom, who grew up in South Dakota and then resided with her husband in Europe. “This will be my first time.”

It will change her family’s relationship with temples, she says. Her four children, ranging from 7 to almost 1, have sung the song “I Love to See the Temple,” she says, but she never expected that “it would be real to them.”

Likewise, for many Latter-day Saints in the United Arab Emirates, going to a temple is a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, she says, given that the nearest one is thousands of miles away. “It’s going to dramatically bless the lives of a whole group of people who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to go to the temple.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle David A. Bednar speaks to a small group of Latter-day Saint leaders in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Attendance was restricted due to COVID-19 and the meeting was also broadcast.

It will serve the church’s nearly 2,000 members in the UAE, as well as attract attendees from all over the region.

It is “an answer to prayers,” Maroun Akiki, president of the faith’s Beirut District in Lebanon, told a UAE newspaper. “For many years, members of the church in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan-Iraq have faithfully looked forward to the day they will be able to visit the temple and receive ordinances for themselves and their deceased ancestors.”

The Dubai Temple, he said, will bring thousands of people living in the area closer to God.

It must have seemed unfathomable to the first Latter-day Saint missionaries who ventured from their homes in Utah to the Arabian deserts.

A tiny church in a giant empire

Church founder Joseph Smith sent apostle Orson Hyde in 1841 to what was then Palestine (now Israel/Palestine) to dedicate the land for the gathering of all Abraham’s children and the preaching of what they believed was the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

It wasn’t until 40 years later, though, that the church — by then headquartered in the Beehive State — began its efforts in earnest in what was once the Ottoman Empire, says James Toronto, a Brigham Young University professor of Arabic and Islamic studies who spent 12 years in the Middle East.

At that time, the empire included lands that today comprise Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank/Gaza, Jordan and some populations on the Arabian Peninsula (including in what is now the UAE).

“The Ottomans, an Islamic dynasty that reached the zenith of its power in the 16th century and made Constantinople its capital, had established an administrative system,” Toronto writes in “Out of Obscurity: The LDS Church in the 20th Century,” “that allowed religious minorities such as Christians and Jews a degree of autonomy so long as they did not threaten Ottoman political authority.”

Such acceptance, as well the “relative ease of traveling between different regions of the sprawling empire,” provided an opening for a flood of Christian missionaries from other lands.

The first Latter-day Saint missionary efforts in the modern Middle East, Toronto says, were initiated in Turkey, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire.

There weren’t many such proselytizers, about four or five at a time, the professor says, and they didn’t have a lot of success finding converts.

Over 30 to 40 years, almost all those they baptized were Armenian Christians, many of whom emigrated to Utah.

The membership of the Turkish Mission, renamed the Armenian Mission in 1921, never exceeded 200. It had a few European and Arab converts in other parts of the mission that included Palestine, Syria, Greece, Egypt and Lebanon.

“They had branches in some major cities, set up schools and maintained a very long history there,” Toronto says in an interview. But the mission shut down after World War II, and only a few missionaries have been sent to these countries since.

That’s partly due to the church’s agreement, he says, that it would not proselytize among Muslims in the Middle East.

In the past 25 years, though, small branches — mostly of expatriates — have sprung up in the region.

In some of these countries, Muslim governments have allowed these Latter-day Saint congregations to meet and include Arab Christians, some of whom had begun to join the church.

“As with most first-generation churches,” Toronto says, “social and political pressures made many of the younger members want to leave and move to Europe or the U.S.”

Out-migration and turmoil have “decimated these LDS congregations,” he says. But there have always been “ebbs and flows.”

These days, most large cities in the Middle East do not have a Latter-day Saint “presence whatsoever,” says independent researcher Matt Martinich, who tracks the church’s growth.

In Turkey, where it all began for Latter-day Saint missionaries in the region, the church has been growing steadily, he says, but mostly among non-Turks, especially Iranians. (There is even a Persian branch).

As to whether a temple in Dubai will boost membership, the Colorado-based demographer is dubious.

Still, he says, “it’s a big deal for the church: first temple in modern times in the Middle East, first temple in a very culturally Islamic nation, and one of the first, or the first, instance of the church building a temple in a country to serve mostly foreigners who live there.

While it does have potential to raise awareness of the church’s presence in the country, Martinich says, “the biggest game changer in the UAE will be if the government would allow missionaries to serve there to work among the non-Arab population.”

For now, though, he does not see the temple “making any significant impact on membership growth trends.”

A land of opportunity

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle David A. Bednar and his wife, Susan, visit Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

The region that includes Dubai dates back to the fifth century B.C., and down through the ages it was inhabited by nomadic cattle herders, followed by date palm planters and, eventually, pearl merchants.

Its location along the Persian Gulf made it a perfect trade route linking Oman to what is now Iraq, according to its official history.

“In 1820, Britain negotiated a maritime truce with local rulers, meaning that the trade routes would be open and business could thrive,” the history says. “With this began a consistent interaction with countries from around the world, making Dubai a center for crucial activity.”

Seventy years later, the government exempted expatriates from paying taxes, which led, the history says, to a “huge influx of foreign workers” as well as Indian and Pakistani traders.

In 1966, everything changed again with one discovery: oil.

Wealth soon oozed everywhere. More workers sprang up. New construction boomed. And the modern city rose out of the desert, including what is reportedly the tallest building in the world — the Burj Khalifa.

The possibility of a better-paying job in the technology industry than teaching computer science was what drew Jun Ryan Mendoza, lifelong Latter-day Saint, to move from his native Philippines to the UAE in 2015, leaving his wife, Socorro, and two kids behind for two years.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Jun Ryan Mendoza talks about his experience as a Filipino Latter-day Saint living and working in the United Arab Emirates on April 7, 2022.

Jun was having a hard time working as a high school computer teacher without his family beside him but felt he had “a purpose” in that country.

He found another school that would allow him to bring his wife to Abu Dhabi, and she landed a job teaching there as well.

“The church is strong here,” says Jun, who is a counselor to the bishop of a Tagalog-speaking ward in Abu Dhabi. “We have good leaders, influenced by Westerners who have been here for quite some time.”

All the Filipino members “feel supported,” says Socorro. “We feel free to express our faith, even though we live in an Arab country.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Socorro Mendoza, a Filipino Latter-day Saint and teacher living in the United Arab Emirates, on April 7, 2022.

They were both stunned but delighted to hear the temple announcement and hope to volunteer there someday.

“It gives me confidence and hope,” Jun says, “that everything will be fine.”

Maybe, Socorro says, “our purpose here is to strengthen the church.”

Worshipping with such diverse Latter-day Saints has been life-changing for the Fristroms.

“It is easy to talk in grandiose terms about loving your neighbor even if they are different from you,” says Amanda. But in Latter-day Saint congregations in the U.S. it is sometimes tough to find people who are not like you.

“Here it is so intentional about the opportunities it gives to people from everywhere,” she says. “There are few other places where the Abrahamic family comes together and shows my family what it is to be a child of God, to live with others and to connect with people who are so different from you in appearance and every other demographic.”

This country’s feast of global sisterhood and brotherhood is a gift to their Latter-day Saint children, says husband Otso. “They are now comfortable wherever they go.”

They can better see the divine, he says, in every face.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The skyline of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as it continues to grow into the desert, Thursday, April 7, 2022.