DUBAI (Reuters Life!) - A U.S.-based Christian group is distributing audio versions of the Bible to migrant workers in labor camps across the United Arab Emirates to provide "spiritual support" amid the economic downturn.
The Gulf Arab state has long hired foreign workers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, to work on construction sites and houses them in labor camps located in the desert.
Foreigners make up more than 80 percent of the UAE's 4.5 million population.
"Workers comprise the majority of the population and the recession has probably hit those folks the hardest," Malcolm Montgomery, a representative of Faith Comes By Hearing, told Reuters by telephone from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Montgomery said the group, which has set its focus on camps around Dubai, recognized "the plight of workers" in the emirate.
Dubai, a financial and trade hub that is part of the seven-member UAE federation, has been hard hit by a property sector slump and major job losses.
The once-booming emirate is more liberal than its Gulf neighbors and allows broader religious freedoms, with churches and temples permitted to operate in non-descript buildings.
Montgomery said his group works with the UAE's Bible Society to deliver scriptures to the poor and illiterate in their native tongue.
The Bible Society manages distribution of the audio Bibles to its group of pastors who then take them to labor camps across the UAE, said a representative of the society in Dubai, who preferred to remain anonymous.
Some camps allow pastors to hold listening sessions while others deny access, prompting groups of 80 to 100 workers to gather in the desert to listen, the representative said.
The Bible Society said pastors do not ask questions about the religion of attendees, but believes 50 percent are Christians with nationalities ranging from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Egypt.
Montgomery said that, while the listening sessions are open to anyone, his group is not attempting to convert people to Christianity, a criminal offense under UAE law.
"That's a personal decision that someone makes. We just try to provide them with opportunities to hear God's word if they desire to hear it," he said.
The Bible Society's representative said they also were not inclined to conversion: "We don't go into that at all. We put them in touch with a church."
Editing by Paul Casciato