On Sunday, the Pope embarked on an historic and highly symbolic visit to the United Arab Emirates, the first time that country has ever had a papal visitor. Relations between the Islamic world and other faiths have not been without strain in the past. However, with this visit, both the host country and the Vatican are sending a powerful message about which direction they wish to see relations head.
The UAE is one of the most tolerant countries in the Gulf region, with the degree of freedom varying somewhat between the more international emirates, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the more conservative, smaller emirates. Even at the conservative end of the spectrum, they compare favourably with the wider region in terms of tolerance and minority rights.
While the UAE record on freedom of religion isn’t perfect – individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths still face restrictions on practising their religion in public – it stands in stark contrast to the repression faced by religious minorities elsewhere. The government interferes little in the private activities of religious minorities, and non-Muslims generally enjoy a climate of tolerance.
Church raids and the mass arrests of worshippers that we see in the Islamic Republic of Iran are unheard of in the UAE. Such raids receive shamefully little attention and scrutiny from western reports, but they are one of many crimes on Tehran’s rap sheet. Elsewhere, vicious attacks by jihadist and extremist groups on places of worship that have claimed the lives of thousands in Egypt are sadly too frequent.
During his stay in the UAE, the Pope will participate in the “International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity,” hosted by the Crown Prince. At the same time, Francis will unsurprisingly engage with the country’s burgeoning Catholic community, answering an invitation from the community’s leaders.
The timing of the symbolic visit is no accident. It hasn’t grabbed regular headlines, but much of the Gulf region’s attitude towards religious minorities has undergone a significant change within a generation.
Thanks to the ever growing community of foreign nationals in those countries, the Christian minority in the UAE has thrived in recent years. The U.S. Department of State reports that the number of Christian churches in the country has almost doubled over a decade from 24 in 2005 to about 40 in 2015.
In 2017, the Crown Prince ordered that his namesake mosque, located next to a complex of churches in the capital, be called Mary, Mother of Jesus Mosque, to promote interreligious harmony. A relatively small measure in practice but a gesture of significant symbolic importance to the country’s Christian population.
Churches of numerous denominations have sprung up across the country, becoming a common sight on the landscape. Rather than being home to a few small houses of Christian prayer, many of the UAE’s churches are large and impressive. For example, St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi sits in a diocese with 100,000 worshippers.
As a further sign of growing tolerance, non-Muslim holidays are openly acknowledged in the UAE. During Christmas time, malls and shops sell decorations and hotels erect Christmas trees. The same rules apply to the Hindu festival of Diwali and the Shiite holiday of Ashura.
The Pope’s visit also comes at a time, when the Arab World is increasingly engaging in a rapprochement with the global Jewish community and in particular, Israel. The UAE has been one of the leading exponents of this approach.
So far, the small Jewish community in the UAE has not been provided with an official place of worship, but this could soon change. In October, Israel Culture Minister Miri Regev became the first Israeli minister to make a state visit to the Emirates – an unthinkable move a generation ago. Accompanied by UAE officials, Regev visited the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and inscribed in the mosque’s visitor’s book in Hebrew: “I wish a good life and peace for all.”
The government tolerates the celebration of Jewish holidays and ceremonies in the private sphere without interference and allows the teaching of Judaism at university. In Abu Dhabi’s Louvre Museum sits a Hebrew testimony to the old Jewish Quarter in Sana’a, a quiet symbol of Gulf efforts to build a relationship with the Jewish diaspora.
For the UAE tolerance has a practical, as well as an ideological, element as one of the very few countries in the region to become prosperous and stable despite the conflicts surrounding. They have come to emphasise tolerance and dialogue as a key tenet of their campaigns against extremism. The Pope’s visit is the latest signal from a region which is starting to impress its interfaith credentials.
Julie Lenarz is a Director at the London-based Human Security Centre and a Former Principal Consultant to the EU Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance