– The UAE’s Minister of State for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, has invited leaders of the country’s Christian communities to play their part in contributing to the promotion of the country’s recently-announced National Programme for Tolerance.
She was speaking during a free-ranging discussion with participants in the annual meeting of the Gulf Christian Fellowship, GCF, on the UAE’s western island of Sir Bani Yas yesterday.
The visit was jointly organised by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and the National Programme for Tolerance.
The Minister outlined to participants in the meeting the pillars of the country’s philosophy of tolerance, as outlined in the National Programme.
It was built, she said, on a combination of the Islamic faith, the UAE Constitution, the legacy of the country’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and the ethics that underpin UAE society. It also included, she noted, the UAE’s heritage, as reflected through archaeology and history, the fundamental elements of human nature and the shared, common values of humanity.
“As we work in the Emirates to promote our commitment to, and understanding of, the philosophy of tolerance in all walks of life, we encourage those from expatriate communities, of all origins and beliefs, to play their part in helping us to strengthen our tolerant society,” Sheikha Lubna said. “We invite you, as leaders of the varied Christian communities in the UAE to encourage your communities to play their part Every day must be tolerance day. Be positive, open to all you meet, live and work with, and be enriched by every person in our diverse society.” In response, Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic for the UAE, Oman and Yemen for the Catholic Church, thanked Sheikha Lubna and asked her to pass the gratitude of participants in the meeting to His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose support had made it possible for the meeting to take place.
He went on to comment on the significance of Sir Bani Yas and its ancient Christian monastery in terms of events in the wider region.
“The visit to Sir Bani Yas Island has a deep meaning for me. That we are visiting the Island under the patronage of the Minister of State for Tolerance underlines the importance. The discovery of the Christian monastery at Sir Bani Yas reminds us that Christianity was present in the region very early and coexisted with Islam for a long period. This is a strong sign for what is again happening in recent times, thanks to the open-minded rulers of the UAE.”
“Looking at what is happening in the wider region, I have noticed,” Bishop Hinder said, “that where there is radicalism, one of the first things is to eradicate the memory of the others, as we have seen in Palmyra and in other places. And when I heard about the reaction of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan when he heard about the presence of the old monastery on this island, he had just the opposite reaction: to maintain this site in the memory of the history of this country. I think that this is important for all of us. It also points,” he said, “to the fact that there is a history that has common roots, not only here on this island, but in the whole region.”
“We, the expatriate Christians in the UAE, want to contribute to a society which shows that religions even in their diversity must not be a reason for war but can be a strong sign of building up justice and peace,” Bishop Hinder added.
“We are grateful for the hospitality we enjoy and willing to contribute our part so that the UAE remains a model of tolerance and mutual respect, founded in our common belief in God, which is for us all a constant incentive for goodness I can only pray that this is reflected in other parts, as I am also Bishop also for Yemen, I know that it can be tragic when people are no more able to accept one another, and we have to learn to exercise this every day.”
In another comment, Archbishop Makarios, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Qatar, said that the GCF was “encouraged and enthusiastic about the steps that the UAE National Programme for Tolerance has taken toward promoting ethics and human values in terms of religious co-existence, in particular, its recognition of Christian heritage in this region and giving it its rightful place in the historical narrative.”
“To educate the world about the rich diversity that characterised this land long ago, is to do justice to those who came before us, and to set a critical example for our brothers and sisters around the world,” he added.
“At a time of violent tumult in the Middle East, which has devastated the vibrant cultural, ethnic, and religious tapestry, the Christian communities are willing to work in our respective capacities and locations, in conjunction with the National Programme for Tolerance to promote this region as a beacon of hope and tolerance,” he said. “We hope that all people of good will may visit the ancient Monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island to see the interaction between Christian and Muslim, and to witness the potential of humanity when mutual respect is our foundation.
The Very Reverend Mesrob Sarkissian, UAE and Qatar representative for the Catholicos of the Armenian Church, described the meeting as ‘extraordinary.’ Thanking His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed for facilitating the visit to Sir Bani Yas, he added, “I would like to express my gratitude to the UAE government and leaders for their hospitality and for the respect they offer to the Christian communities in the region, and for the freedom that we enjoy to worship God through our churches. The UAE is a model country because of the way it provides land to Christian communities so that they may build their places of worship.”
In subsequent discussion, one participant commented that, “The value of tolerance is simple to understand but so elusive when putting it into practice. I was not prepared for the breadth and boldness of the National Programme for Toleranc +e. The UAE’s plan to strategically and intentionally implement the value of tolerance was deeply encouraging.”
The Gulf Christian Fellowship, founded in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in 2012, brings together leaders from a wide range of Christian churches, drawn from the five main groups of Christianity, the Catholic, the Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox, the Episcopal Churches and the Anglicans.
In a statement issued after the meeting, the GCF Executive Committee said, “Leaders of Churches in the GCC countries welcome opportunities to increase cooperation between our Churches, and between peoples of different religious and social traditions within the incredibly diverse mix of nationalities who find themselves living and working in the Gulf. Although each ethnic and religious grouping strongly desires to be understood by others, the leaders of the Churches are working together to encourage movements toward mutual understanding, peaceful coexistence and strengthening the social dynamics that make up the societies where we live. The annual meeting of the Gulf Churches Fellowship is greatly facilitated by the intentional and direct policies of the UAE government regarding tolerance of non-Muslims living in the country, for which we are very grateful.”
The statement added, “We hail the efforts of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, for his vision and commitment to building a society where the value of tolerance is not just mere talk but is a lived and shared experience. Giving thanks to God, we continue to pray for God’s blessings on the wise leadership of the nation with thanksgiving.”
The meeting was attended by over thirty participants from the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Among them were several archbishops and bishops, including Dr. Joseph, the Metropolitan of the Indian-based Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, Archbishop Nathaniel, Patriarchal-Vicar in the Gulf of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Bishop Khoury Gregorios, Greek Orthodox Bishop in the Emirates, and Bishop Michael Lewis, Anglican Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf.
Other denominations present included the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church, the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church in America.