This month, a couple of snippets of local news have provided welcome confirmation of the continued steps being taken in the Emirates to promote a culture of tolerance. They have shown that the concept is not simply a matter of encouraging acceptance and respect between the UAE’s various faith communities. It also extends to a commitment to recognising the necessity of creating a more inclusive society that encompasses those of varying abilities.
The first snippet is the announcement that yet another church is to be built in the Emirates – this time for the 6,000 UAE-based followers of the Church of South India, a Protestant church that is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
For many years, resident members of the CSI have worshipped at St Andrew's Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi. They were one of many different congregations who have been made welcome to use those facilities. Now, however, as the community has grown in strength, funds have been raised to permit it to construct its own church, which will be located in Shahama, near a large Hindu temple that is already under construction. The land was donated by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
The Emirates' large Christian community has benefited for decades from the philosophy of religious tolerance and dialogue embedded into the state's fundamental principles by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father. Last year's visit to the country by Pope Francis drew global attention to the size of that community.
Many international observers, however, will be unaware of the enormous diversity among the UAE’s Christian believers. While Catholics predominate, there are now several dozen churches and cathedrals serving different denominations to reflect the variety of Christian traditions. Groups such as Anglicans, Egyptian Copts and Evangelicals are well-known. Less familiar are the smaller congregations, such as the CSI and groups linked to the Eastern Christian tradition. But they, too, have an important role to play in consolidating and enhancing the religious and cultural diversity that we all enjoy.
While these aspects of tolerance and mutual respect are now widely understood, there are other aspects that require more work and greater recognition. That is the purpose of the new Strategy for People of Determination that has just been announced by Sheikh Mohamed.
To be led by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Community Development in association with five other departments and institutions, the five-year strategy includes 30 specific initiatives to be implemented by 28 federal and local government bodies to ensure equal access and rights for those with disabilities.
Some of these are fairly simple, such as access to buildings and transport, and can be carried out without too much difficulty with the right amount of funding.
What is also necessary, of course, is a concerted effort across the public and private sectors to change attitudes so that People of Determination are welcomed into society. Wheelchair ramps are great, as are properly equipped office facilities, but for the government's efforts to be fully effective, mindsets need to change, too.
One challenging task is to address the difficulties faced by those People of Determination whose disabilities are not physical ones.
There is, for example, an evident need for more attention to be paid to the provision of dedicated special education for children who fall within the autism spectrum. For those on the spectrum who are older, there is the challenge of providing them with opportunities that will allow them to lead a fulfilling life.
For that to be achieved, it’s important that a programme is devised to encourage employers to create opportunities for those on the autism spectrum and others with learning disabilities.
Regular readers of my columns will know that I frequently turn to my other home of the British Channel Island of Jersey for ideas that might prove valuable in a UAE context. The Beresford Street Kitchen, located in Jersey's capital St Helier, is an 80-seat cafe run by a charity that provides education, training and employment for people with learning disabilities and autism. “Every penny generated through sales,” its website notes, “goes back into the charity, and the more money we raise, the more positions we can offer.”
It also runs an outside catering service which caters for meetings, day centres and even the canteen of the police headquarters. It’s a happy little place, serving good coffee. It also enables its customers to engage with its staff, some of Jersey’s People of Determination, in a conventional, day-to-day environment. Could such a cafe be established here?
The concept of tolerance and co-existence throughout the UAE’s varied communities, both citizens and other residents, is a fundamental element in the building of our society. The foundations have been laid, but, as with anywhere, it remains very much a work in progress.
As we look towards the International Day of Tolerance, celebrated next month, I hope that we will see an ever-widening recognition of the importance that the concept should play in all of our lives.
Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National