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Keeping the faith

Rounding up the Year of Tolerance celebrations in the UAE, we take a look at local initiatives championed in 2019 to promote acceptance for all

With around 200 nationalities living peacefully together in the UAE, it was fitting to have 2019 named the Year of Tolerance. Based on the principles of peace, humanity, coexistence and respect, several initiatives were announced during the year, cementing the nation’s ideals at home and beyond. From interfaith dialogue to inclusivity for those with special needs, the country’s leaders proved that it was more than a mere slogan. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said: “Tolerance is the cornerstone of advanced societies, intellectually and humanely, and is one of the tools of empowering civilisations and ensuring stability and flourishing of nations.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said that tolerance was a vital principle for the country’s and the world’s future. There have been initiatives, both big and small, from international sporting events to the renaming of mosques and bridges. Perhaps, one of the most significant markers of the Year of Tolerance was the visit of Pope Francis in February that saw the pontiff speak to an audience of around 180,000 people at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. His historic trip sent a message to the world that the UAE welcomes all faiths. For the many Catholics in the UAE, it was the event of a lifetime, many journeying overnight to secure their place at the sermon held in the UAE capital, eager to bear witness to the first time a sitting pontiff had stepped foot on the Arabian Peninsula.

A month later, as a sign of allegiance for those with special needs, the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 was held in the capital, highlighting the country’s move towards inclusion. More than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries registered to compete in 24 summer sports, along with 2,500 coaches and 20,000 volunteers. It sent a loud signal of support and acceptance for all those that the country respects as “people of determination”. Earlier this year, the oldest Christian site discovered on Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas Island in 1992 was also finally opened to the public. The church and monastery date back to the seventh and eighth centuries while other remains found on the site include courtyard homes and pottery items.

As the earliest known evidence of Christianity in the emirates, it sheds light on the UAE’s culturally diverse heritage and long-standing values of tolerance and acceptance of other faiths. Embodying gender equality, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan also passed a decree stating that for the 2019 elections, women must comprise 50 percent of the UAE’s Federal National Council. Further embracing religious tolerance, the year also saw construction begin on the region’s first traditional Hindu stone temple, believed to open in 2020. The development of the 13.7-acre plot of land in Abu Mureikha is a sign of allegiance with the country’s Indian population, one of the largest expatriate communities in the UAE. Construction will also commence next year on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island for the Abrahamic Family House. A place of worship for the three Abrahamic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, it is the first project of its kind, not only in the UAE but also in the entire region. Several places of worship have also been renamed, including the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Mosque in Mushrif, which is now Mary the Mother of Jesus Mosque.

The structure over Dubai Water Canal was also named as the Tolerance Bridge to pay homage to the ideals of the nation. The message has spread across many aspects of society, from schools to workplaces. It has also led to the introduction of several new initiatives, from better training for teachers to support those with special needs to empathy workshops. It is the UAE’s genuine belief in these principles that continues to attract the world to its shores. 

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