women in saris carefully place candles at an outdoor grotto of the Virgin Mary
and kneel in prayer as couples from Uganda and Nigeria pour into the nearby
Chaldeans, Maronites, and Latin Catholics laugh together as they enter a
unified Arabic-language Catholic church service; Egyptian and Sudanese families
gather in front of the next-door Coptic church; and English expats head into
the Anglican church.
bus drivers snap pictures with their phones as 15 Filipino brides and grooms
pose for wedding photos outside St. Joseph’s Church ahead of their mass
while, Filipinos line up for mashed purple yam cakes and polvorón shortbread at
an outdoor bake sale in the church courtyard, with the Islamic call to prayer
from the neighbouring Jesus Son of Mariam Mosque ringing out overhead.
This is not
an international festival; it’s a Sunday in Abu Dhabi.
the arrival of migrants from across the world, the collection of tiny Arab
Emirates at the tip of the Persian Gulf – an international financial powerhouse
and a growing diplomatic and military power in the Arab world – has become a
seamless meeting place of faiths and cultures.
Arab Emirates is also billing itself as an interfaith leader, having declared
2019 to be a national “year of tolerance” that was headlined with a visit by
Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi in February – the first-ever papal visit to the Gulf
in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
But even as
this oil-rich country’s rulers promote harmony, the country’s ultraconservative
laws strictly forbid these faithful from seeking to convert Muslims or from
publicly displaying crosses. Its neighbors and close allies promote an austere
interpretation of Islam with less tolerant attitudes toward other organized
religions. Saudi Arabia, its closest ally, has banned the building of churches
The lure of
the Islamic State group remains for some in the region, while an uneasy gray
area exists between violent extremist movements and conservative Muslim
televangelists who dominate Gulf airwaves and are suspicious of other faiths.
question remains: Can this petrodollar expat haven of sleek skyscrapers and
polished public-relations campaigns truly be a beacon for interfaith tolerance
in the Muslim Gulf and the wider Middle East?
More is at
stake than a simple PR campaign.
As the UAE
emerges as a leading power in the region, its leadership is committed to
pushing a friendly, tolerant image to the world and its Western allies.
is open to other religions is not only good for business with the West, India,
and Asia; it also sends the message that the UAE shares values with its Western
allies. Saudi Arabia’s inability to do so has led it to become a pariah in many
As the UAE
steps up its military and political involvement across North Africa, the Arab
world, and farther afield, Abu Dhabi believes that the best way to head off
criticism or opposition is to show that Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs,
and Jews are all welcome to worship on Emirati soil.
history with non-Muslim faiths is rooted in the humble beginnings of the young
country and is part of the story of its rise from poverty into a global
Hinduism, and Sikhism all had a foothold in the Emirates and were communities
before the Emirates gained independence and entered the United Nations in 1971.
The communities grew in size as the UAE’s oil industry absorbed influxes of
expatriate engineers, administrators, and oil rig workers.
was discovered here in 1958, decades before petrodollars filled their coffers;
the pre-independence Emirates were served by few schools or basic medical
facilities. Churches and foreign missionaries helped the UAE to modernize.
American Christian missionaries established the Oasis Hospital in the town of
Al Ain. They served the ruling families and revolutionized prenatal and
neonatal health in the Emirates, cutting infant mortality rates from a
staggering 50% to 5% within a few short years.
the Catholic Church opened St. Joseph’s School, Abu Dhabi’s first private
school, and a year later St. Mary’s high school in Dubai.
outreach was noticed by the ruling families, and the appreciation is still felt
government here is grateful to Christians, as Christians contributed to the
development of the country and have proven to be trustworthy,” says the Rev.
Gandalf Wild, vice secretary of the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia based in
As the UAE
shifted its focus to becoming a global economic hub at the turn of the 21st
century, its expatriate community exploded to some 8 million, attracting
workers from across Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe.
now outnumber Emiratis 4 to 1. In Dubai there are more than 40 churches and
dozens more Christian denominations that share chapels, a large Sikh temple, a
Buddhist temple, and two Hindu temples, and several informal Jewish prayer
groups meet in rented office spaces or apartments. A cornerstone for a new
Hindu temple was laid in Abu Dhabi in April.
faith communities and cultures work together and pray side by side to the point
that they have become indispensable to one another. All find a shared community
Joseph’s Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi, it’s Bible study night, and men and
women from the Philippines, India, Uganda, and elsewhere have gathered, sitting
in lines of folding chairs, a large wooden cross hanging above.
group is continuing an “Introduction to the Patriarchs” lesson, skimming
through Genesis 15 through 22, stopping at Abraham’s preparations to sacrifice
from all over the world and speak different languages, but we are united in our
love for our Lord,” says Lawrence, a student.
is also evident at the Hindu and Sikh temples at Bur Dubai, buried in the heart
of the port city’s mazelike historic souk near the seaside.
up to the second floor of the converted shop, where Hindu shipyard porters and
CEOs pray at shrines for Shiva and Krishna; others continue to the third floor,
cover their hair, and enter the Sikh temple, where a trio of men plays a
calming, trancelike kirtan song on the stringed Dilruba and drums.
two temples is a small, open-air kitchen by the stairway where Sikhs provide
small meals of pilaf and lentils to all – Hindu, Sikh, and visitor alike.
“We pray at
the temple each day; we put up lights for Diwali,” says Priya, an Indian
national who has lived in the UAE for 10 years, as she leaves the temple. “It
is like we are back home, but we get to share it with others who have no idea
of our religion.”
prayer-goers stop at a small, street-level shop next to the Hindu and Sikh
temples. It offers a rest stop for worshippers to place their sandals, strings
of flower necklaces, and a counter of ready-made food offerings of bananas,
apples, oranges, milk, and sweets on plastic-foam plates to place at the
Ahmed Mohammed, is a Shiite Muslim. Originally from Iran, Mr. Mohammed says he
sees no contradiction in running a store catering to his neighbors and friends
of 25 years.
come from different places, but we are all one people here in Dubai. We support
one another and help one another,” he says as he sells a prasadam plate to an
Indian couple. “These values are present in all religions, whether Islam,
Hinduism, or Sikhism.”
is served on a plate at Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh Temple, the largest Sikh temple
in the Arab world.
three-story temple stands across from Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and
evangelical churches on a plot of land donated by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed
bin Rashed al Makhtoum. It’s in the Jabel Ali area on the outskirts of Dubai, a
few miles away from one of the largest worker camps in the Arab world.
entrance leads to its Langar, a gleaming, ultramodern 18-hour-a-day community
kitchen with a catering staff on hand to provide three meals for 1,500 people
each day. On Fridays, the temple feeds some 10,000 visitors.
completed in 2012, does not only provide for the Sikh community; Muslim, Hindu,
and Christian factory and shipyard workers from Asia and across the world also
rely on this temple for their daily meals. During Ramadan, the temple provides
iftar meals for Muslims.
estimated 50% of its visitors non-Sikhs, the temple even dedicated a separate
prayer room for visitors to pray and meditate, whatever their faith.
come here and venerate Allah or the Virgin Mary,” says Rajdeep Singh, the Guru
Nanak Darbar hospitality manager, as he opens the door to the guest prayer
room. “This is not only a Sikh temple; this is a temple for all humanity. We
believe humanity is the first religion.”
temple’s Langar kitchen and eating area, men in fitted suits and crisply
starched oxford shirts sit cross-legged on a long carpet next to workers with
cement-stained jeans, 70-year-old matriarchs, and 7-year-olds, over plates of
lentils, yogurt, vegetables, and rice pudding.
say the religious tolerance in the Emirates has had social implications as
well, bringing together those on vastly different rungs of the UAE’s pulsing,
global economy who would otherwise never meet – from the brick-layers to the
walk into this temple or a church, money, title, positions are all dissolved,”
Sanjay Kalwani, an Indian national who works in shipping, says as he and his
wife, Sabna, sit down for plates of rice and lentils following an evening
prayer at the Sikh temple.
billionaire CEO will pray and eat right next to a factory worker, and no one
gets special treatment. We are all praying away from our homes, and in this
interfaith community, we all share a common need.”
Proselytizing, No Politics
conform to Islamic norms, faith groups also face limits.
Emirati law and a long-standing unspoken arrangement with the ruling family,
Christian, Hindu, and Sikh religious groups do not proselytize or attempt to
convert Muslims – a criminal act in the UAE. Apostasy by Muslims is punishable
by death under the law, although there is no known legal case or prosecution in
the UAE’s history.
Islam’s ban against idolatry, Hindu temples were previously required to place
images, rather than physical idols, in their shrines.
rights watchdogs say religious freedoms for non-Muslims in the UAE are by and
large respected. A law bans discrimination on the basis of religion, and the
government does not require faith groups to register or be licensed.
church and temple leaders say, is “no politics.”
leaders and communities here do not step into politics or even comment on
decision-making. Foreign workers and expatriates refrain from discussing or
criticizing Emirati laws, policies, or the ruling families in public.
separation between worship and politics has fostered a harmonious relationship
not only between the Emirati state and religious leaders, but also among the
various faith groups themselves, whose leaders say they are more than happy to
keep it this way.
But if the
world’s religions are welcome, Emirati authorities have been less lenient with
variations of Islam, human rights advocates say.
deviation from the state-sponsored Sunni Islam is viewed as a direct challenge
to the state itself.
no room whatsoever for any interpretation of Islam in the UAE other than their
own,” says Hiba Zayadin, UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As soon as you
are out of step or criticize the state’s definition of moderate Islam, you are
Wary of the
Muslim Brotherhood, which challenges the Gulf monarchies’ grip on power, the
UAE has jailed Brotherhood sympathizers as terrorists and discourages various
strands of Sunni and Shiite Islam from holding public displays of worship.
Tide Of Tolerance?
In 2017, to
promote the UAE’s interfaith outreach at home and across the region, the
Emirates created the world’s first “Ministry of Tolerance.”
headed by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, a member of the ruling family who drops
the word “tolerance” so frequently it sounds like a mantra. His grandfather,
Shakbut Al Nahyan, offered land for the first church in the Emirati capital as
the ruler of Abu Dhabi more than a half-century ago.
“We have a
history of living alongside the other and respecting the other, and we don’t
want to take this for granted,” Sheikh Nahyan says. Noting the presence of
extremist groups elsewhere in the region, he adds, “We have to protect future
generations from intolerance.”
leaders are confident their model can encourage a change of approach in the
pope’s visit, Saudi newspapers had headlines and stories stating that ‘Pope’s
next visit to the Gulf will be Saudi Arabia,’” Sheikh Nahyan noted.
light will prevail at the end, and by upholding good human principles of
acceptance and tolerance here in the UAE, we are playing our role to help
spread this light in the region.”