When Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, signed the Document on Human Fraternity during the pontiff’s groundbreaking and memorable visit earlier this year, it set out a blueprint of the foundations of mutual respect and understanding upon which the UAE is built. The Abrahamic Family House, unveiled on Friday in New York, is a bricks-and-mortar manifestation of that document, a beacon on the horizon enshrining the values this country holds dear. Sitting next to Louvre Abu Dhabi, itself a monument to cultural understanding across civilizations, the triptych of houses of worship will stand as an embodiment of a society that welcomes all, irrespective of backgrounds and beliefs, for generations to come.
It is fitting that the Abrahamic Family House on Saadiyat Island, which will include a mosque, church and synagogue, was unveiled in a ceremony in the New York Public Library, itself a seat of learning and an historic landmark holding rare manuscripts relating to the three Abrahamic faiths, including the first printed Gutenberg Bible.
Construction on the Abu Dhabi site, which will consist of three elegant buildings surrounding a central leafy courtyard, will begin next year. By the time it is completed in 2022, it will stand as a symbol of the vision of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s Founding Father, who strove to build a nation with interfaith dialogue and religious acceptance at its very heart. Its creation is an important step – one of many taken by the government throughout the nation’s nearly 48-year history – towards realizing that while conflict, religious hatred and intolerance continue to plague parts of the Middle East, unity and empathy are stronger forces that have the power to conquer all differences.
Indeed, important work is being done in the UAE, a country that is home to many different nationalities, to accommodate all religions and sects. The country’s first traditional Hindu temple is scheduled to welcome worshippers from around the world to Abu Dhabi from 2022. In April, the first foundation stone was laid as priests chanted hymns in Sanskrit. In neighboring Dubai is the only Buddhist temple in the Arabian Peninsula, welcoming more than 1,000 worshippers every Friday. And on Sunday, all 17 churches in Abu Dhabi and the forthcoming Hindu temple were brought under one umbrella by the Department of Community Development to reflect the government’s role in supporting religious minorities.
All these steps were set in motion by the papal visit in February this year, when thousands of Catholics across the country congregated inside the capital’s Zayed Sports City to get a glimpse of Pope Francis – a landmark moment that united the country in celebration. Such steps will go a long way towards building a model society and nation, reminding a restive and divided world of the merits of building bridges and uniting people. One need not simply look at countries devastated by conflict – most notably Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen – to understand the importance of the UAE project. Events around the world tell us that work of sustaining peace and harmony is never done, but societies that manage to do so reap rewards and set an example for others to follow.