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Pope’s visit to UAE underscores religious tolerance


Pope Francis (C) is welcomed by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum (L) and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R) upon his arrival to the presidential palace in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019. – Pope Francis arrived in the UAE on February 3, the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, birthplace of Islam, where he will meet leading Muslim clerics and hold an open-air mass for some 135,000 Catholics. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

In this era of globalization, there has been a significant increase in people from different backgrounds, cultures, and faiths coming together to make the world a much more diverse place than it was 50 years ago. It is important to establish a high level of tolerance that leads to peaceful co-existence in our community, as this nurtures friendship and harmony, which is key to growth and development of our personal goals and our communities at large.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a model example to show how cooperation and acceptability between people from multiple backgrounds can result in peaceful co-existence. The UAE currently has over 200 different nationalities living and working in the country, with 76 different places of worship, each catering to different faiths and beliefs.

As a result of the peaceful co-existence, the government of the UAE announced the year 2019 as the Year of Tolerance on the 16th of December 2018, therefore re-establishing the peaceful co-existence and amity in local, regional and international communities. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of UAE recently stated that the UAE’s approach is to consolidate tolerance locally, regionally and internationally, and it is one of the main pillars in establishing relationships with all civilisations, cultures and religions. He added that the promotion of values of tolerance and diversity contributes positively to the well-being, development and happiness of all mankind.

No sooner had the year 2019 begun, when Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church paid a historic three-day visit to the UAE on February 3rd to February 5th 2019 to further demonstrate the close ties between a predominantly Muslim nation and her acceptability of its growing Christian community.

This visit was orchestrated in September 2016, when His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, paid a visit to the Vatican, during which he met with the Pope and invited him to visit the UAE.

This is truly historic because it was the first time a Pontiff has visited the Arabian Peninsula, which also plays host to Islam’s holiest sites of Mecca and Medina and this visit, included events and dialogues of inter-faith coexistence. It is well worth mentioning that visiting the UAE alongside the Pope, is the leader and topmost religious figure of the Sunni Islamic clergy; the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif Ahmed Al-Tayeb.

Various events scheduled during this three-day visit included an International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity hosted by the Muslim Council of Elders. This event aims to bridge the gaps that stand in the way of inter-religious and inter-cultural harmony and amity across the world. The Pope also celebrated an open mass; first ever in the Arabian Peninsula, with over 135,000 people including 4,000 Muslims attending. Pope Francis and Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Azhar imam, also signed a “Human Fraternity Document,” agreeing on general values shared by the two communities of faith.

The visit represented one of the largest public gatherings in the history of the Arab state. Also significant was the Pope’s visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and his meetings with various religious leaders from around the world who were gathered in the UAE to commemorate his visit.

With Christians accounting for 13% of the population of the UAE, the right for all to worship freely is guaranteed in the UAE constitution as the government believes and respects every individual’s right to freedom of worship as she sees it as a precondition for promoting peace in the country and the world at large. 

There are at least 31 Christian churches in the country built on land allocated by the local government in the various emirates in which they are located. This spreads across the various Christian denominations such as Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholic churches. It is well worth noting that the first Roman Catholic Church in the UAE was established as far back as 1965. Also, a grand Hindu temple is under construction in Abu Dhabi, signifying the UAE leadership’s commitment to religious diversity and utmost respect further showing the UAE’s acceptance for other religions and beliefs. Furthermore, Judaism is also freely practised in the UAE with a Synagogue in Dubai that was established in 2008.

Such grand and historic events such as the visit of the Pope further reinforce the UAE’s resolve in promoting and tolerating the peaceful co-existence of people from different backgrounds and with different faiths. This is common ground in which the UAE shares with Nigeria; which has a large amount of Christians among its population and a few new Christian churches by Nigerian founders in the UAE such as the Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA) in Dubai, which opened in 2017.

Shortly after the Pope’s visit to the UAE, the UAE Foreign Minister His Highness Sheikh Abdulla bin Zayed Al Nahyan went to the Vatican to deliver a letter from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces to thank his holiness on a truly historic visit.

In conclusion, tolerance is needed in all spheres of life because it plays a vital role in establishing peace and love in all societies. It should be made clear that showing respect and tolerance to the opinions of others does not necessarily mean you have to compromise your principles or embrace or accept others’ ideas. It is simply a matter of fundamental human rights. As the UAE Ambassador to Nigeria, I share in the vision of our government to promote religious peace, acceptability and tolerance.  There is a popular quote that goes “we are stronger united than we are divided” and we will continue to work together to foster relations that will increase a mutually beneficial partnership between the UAE and Nigeria.
Fahad Obaid Al Taffaq is Ambassador of United Arab Emirates to Nigeria


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