If you read the headlines, the Middle East may sound like a hostile and unpleasant place for religious minorities. Regrettably, in many countries in the region, Christians and other minority faith groups are subject to violence, discrimination and sometimes the inability to freely practice their religions.
However, not everywhere in the Middle East is that way. The United Arab Emirates, a small country in the Arabian Gulf, is pioneering a different path — one based on tolerance, openness and inclusion. In the UAE, people of all faiths are encouraged to worship freely, and many have their own places of worship, supported by the government. Both of us pastor multi-ethnic congregations in this Muslim nation.
If other countries emulated this model, the region would be a more peaceful, prosperous place. And that’s the message our UAE delegation is conveying at the State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which is taking place in Washington this week.
The conference brings together international leaders from governments, faith organizations and NGOs to discuss solutions for combatting religious persecution and ensuring religious freedom for all.
The UAE is a leader in this regard. The country is home to 200 nationalities who live, work and worship peacefully alongside one another.
Different religions have built 40 churches, two Hindu temples and a Sikh temple, all on land donated freely by the ruling authorities, who welcome multi-national congregations in the UAE. The region’s largest Anglican Church is currently being built in Abu Dhabi and will accommodate more than 4,000 worshipers once complete. This new large facility will be not only be a center of worship, but also a gathering place for communities who are making a home away from home. This generous provision of land for non- Muslim residents is consistent with the hospitality that is a feature of Emirati culture and tradition.
In 2017, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan renamed a mosque in Abu Dhabi to “Mary, Mother of Jesus” to build stronger understanding between Christians and Muslims. This extraordinary gesture reflects the UAE’s commitment to promoting tolerance and inclusion.
Two years ago, the UAE appointed a Minister of State for Tolerance, launched a National Tolerance Program and created the National Institute for Tolerance, a research center that highlights best practices in tolerance. The present Minister, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, implements programs that foster respect, peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding among people in the UAE.
In addition, the UAE is home to the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, an initiative that promotes religious coexistence. In 2017, the Forum hosted the first American Caravan for Peace to increase dialogue on moderation and tolerance. The Caravan consisted of more than 30 prominent Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from the US.
And earlier this year, the UAE government worked with the US Embassy in the UAE to host the Reginald Golden Singers, a musical group affiliated with the Howard University Gospel Choir. The group sang Christian hymns in front of diverse audiences throughout the UAE.
In addition to creating an inclusive environment, the UAE is also dedicated to promoting moderate Islam and countering extremist interpretations of the faith.
The UAE General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments works to ensure that Imams deliver Friday sermons that promote tolerance and inclusion.
In that same vein, the UAE recently established the Emirates Fatwa Council as the country’s official reference for religious rulings. The Council, which includes two female members, aims to promote moderate interpretations of Islam among people in the UAE and throughout the Muslim world.
The UAE is also taking strong steps to counteract radicalization. And it is a strong partner of the US in doing so.
For example, the UAE worked with the State Department to set up the Sawab Center, a bilateral initiative between the UAE and US to counter extremist propaganda and terrorist messaging in the online space. Headquartered in Abu Dhabi, this joint digital communications hub utilizes social media platforms to amplify credible voices to speak out against extremist groups and counter false extremist claims.
Another important UAE-based organization is the Hedayah Center, a global think tank that provides communities and governments around the world with tools to increase their capabilities to counter extremism and recruitment efforts by terrorist organizations.
Through this broad and varied approach, the UAE is encouraging tolerance and inclusion while pushing back against extremist narratives that seek to undermine its positive vision for the future. It is a model for the region that others should follow.
Andy Thompson is a reverend for the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi and Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor for the Evangelical Community Church in Abu Dhabi.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.