The oldest church in the UAE, and the roots of tolerance

When Peter Hellyer stood on the theater for the winners of the Abu Dhabi Theater Award in 2013, he had spent about 40 years in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), fulfilling his passion for antiquities and working in the journalistic and cultural fields. He recalled one of his hardest nights in the country, when he could not sleep.

It was in 1992, and he was in the company of UAE founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan on Sir Bani Yas island, where Sheikh Zayed was leading a team to develop it. Hellyer discovered with the team a church that was founded in the seventh century AD. He asked himself: “How will the leader of a Muslim country react to the archaeological discovery of a church? Do I tell him or keep it a secret?”

The following day, Sheikh Zayed noticed the fatigue and anxiety on the face of Hellyer, who revealed the discovery to him. Sheikh Zayed, who ordered its preservation, asked him: “What prevents our ancestors from being ancients Christians before Islam?”

Clear vision

The vision was clear to Sheikh Zayed: There is continuity between different cultures, and the rupture between them is just a presumption adapted by extremists in every culture. This confirms that tolerance in the UAE is routed in history and has a solid basis.

The UAE has gained international recognition for fostering coexistence between 200 nationalities of all religions and sects, all of them residents.

Turki Al-Dakhil

I have read two studies citing historical examples of tolerance in the country - one by Dr Fatima al-Sayegh, the other by Omar al-Hammadi. For example, Indian businessman Vijay Bhatia recalls that Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, ruler of Dubai from 1958 until 1990, used to visit the Indian community during their religious festivals, celebrating and eating whatever they were eating.

This reflects the religious tolerance of UAE rulers. The country has gained international recognition for fostering coexistence between 200 nationalities of all religions and sects, all of them residents.

In Sept. 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his appreciation to the UAE for facilitating the establishment of a Russian Orthodox church. In April 2007, UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan welcomed Pope Shenouda III on the occasion of the opening of the Coptic Orthodox church in Abu Dhabi.

UAE law rejects all forms of discrimination. The hope is that such tolerance will spread to other Arab countries.

This article was first published by al-Bayan on Mar. 31, 2016.
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Turki Al-Dakhil is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. He began his career as a print journalist, covering politics and culture for the Saudi newspapers Okaz, Al-Riyadh and Al-Watan. He then moved to pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat and pan-Arab news magazine Al-Majalla. Turki later became a radio correspondent for the French-owned pan-Arab Radio Monte Carlo and MBC FM. He proceeded to Elaph, an online news magazine and Alarabiya.net, the news channel’s online platform. Over a ten-year period, Dakhil’s weekly Al Arabiya talk show “Edaat” (Spotlights) provided an opportunity for proponents of Arab and Islamic social reform to make their case to a mass audience. Turki also owns Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre and Madarek Publishing House in Dubai. He has received several awards and honors, including the America Abroad Media annual award for his role in supporting civil society, human rights and advancing women’s roles in Gulf societies. He tweets @TurkiAldakhil.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:47 - GMT 06:47
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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