On Christmas, let's reflect on the promise communities make to one another

The antidote to fear is knowledge and love and the more you learn about other faiths, the deeper friendships grow

Dubai - December 24, 2009 - Worshippers attend the seven o'clock Christmas Eve mass at Saint Mary's Church in Oud Metha in Dubai, December 24, 2009. Church officials estimate that 40,000 people attend the church's Christmas Eve midnight mass. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)
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By any standards, 2019 has been an extraordinary year for the UAE. It began with the dedication of the year to promoting the value of tolerance, the first time that any government anywhere in the world has intentionally structured its whole policy, both domestic and foreign, around promoting tolerance.

In February, Pope Francis made a three-day visit to the UAE, the first ever tour of the Gulf region by a pontiff. The papal visit culminated in a Christian act of worship attended by an estimated 180,000 Catholics. It was an historic event and an incredible statement of welcome to the Christian community residing in the UAE. During the visit, Pope Francis signed, along with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed Al Tayeb, a document known as the Human Fraternity Declaration.

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I am so proud to live in a country which is offering hope, not just as a political or religious ideal but as a lived reality

This document called on Roman Catholics and Muslims to commit to living out the teachings of faith that emphasise love and fraternity. It acknowledged that religion was both a cause of, and also a solution to, global trends of intolerance. It is a doctrine that has captured the imagination of countries outside the UAE.

Earlier this month I was in Brussels speaking to a group of politicians from the European Parliament, who were asking how the message coming from the UAE could be adapted to counteract a disturbing rise of prejudice and hate crime across Europe.

That meeting in Brussels was followed by the Forum for Peace hosted in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, in which 500 religious leaders, mainly from the Abrahamic religions, expressed their commitment to supporting religious freedom across the Middle East. It is hoped that this commitment will impact domestic policies across the region.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates -  Reverend Andrew Thompson lead the Christmas mass service, which marks the 60th anniversary of the first Anglican service in Abu Dhabi in December 1957, and was commemorated on December 17, 2017 at St. Andrews Church. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
An artist's illustration of the Abrahamic Family House to be built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Edelman

It is noteworthy that at this moment in global history, good news is coming out of the Middle East. Set against a backdrop of resurgent nationalism, terrorism informed by extreme political and religious ideologies, a massive rise in the number of refugees, history has taught us that in dark times, hope emerges from desert lands.

Think of the messages of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed. In such a negative climate of division and suspicion between nations and religious communities, the UAE announced its intention to build a mosque, a church and a synagogue side by side under the umbrella of the Abrahamic Family House as an iconic statement of a better way to live. I am so proud to live in a country which is offering hope, not just as a political or religious ideal but as a lived reality.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Last day of Simbang Gabi, a nine day series of masses practiced by the Filipino Catholics in anticipation of Christmas at St. JosephÕs Cathedral in Mushrif. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Filipino community gathers in massive numbers for the last day mass held at St. JosephÕs Cathedral in Mushrif. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

For this reason, I was deeply honoured this year to receive a UAE Pioneer award from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. The significance of this award was an affirmation for the whole Christian community who live in the UAE. Christians in all seven of the emirates seek to be faithful followers of Jesus by blessing the nation through their diligent work and witness. It was also an affirmation of my work as an interfaith activist.

The goal of good interfaith dialogue is reconciliation. Reconciliation should lead to deeper understanding of the other, a means to confront injustice and prejudice, and ultimately to see, know and love the other in response to the divine imperative embedded in all religions, which is to love God and neighbour.

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For the last decade, interfaith initiatives in the Middle East have been largely sporadic, focused mainly on commonalities, and have largely been the domain of intellectuals and academics. While this seems a limitation of the movement so far, at least it is a starting place and things are beginning to change.

Relationships are morphing into deep friendships, trust is being established and from there I can see the next decade evolving into interfaith dialogue, which will be translated into grassroots action in the form of communities mutually rejecting any unacceptable and harmful ideologies and behaviour.

I would want religious communities around the world to examine the Human Fraternity Declaration and allow it to speak to them as an invitation to join in by living out their faiths with authenticity and faithfulness. There is mileage in getting this document discussed in a wider setting, involving local communities and seeing it not only as a declaration of ideals but as the basis for an agreement between communities in which, like a marriage covenant, we are invited to say: “I do”. There is great power released when individuals and groups make a promise to one another.

This is one action that can be taken to counter the suspicion held by fundamentalists in all religions that interfaith dialogue means compromise, a loosening of deeply held religious convictions in order to accommodate the other.

Such a negative suspicion of interfaith activity is always fuelled by fear. This has not been my experience. In fact, the more I open myself to learning about other faiths, the deeper my friendship are with them, the more I cherish my own faith. The antidote to fear is knowledge and love.

Effective interfaith activism is very simple. It starts with education. We need to encourage people, including children, to learn about the great world faiths. The best attitude for learning is that one is open and generous to study not for the sake of criticising the other but rather, to cultivate what has come to be termed a “holy envy”, in which we learn to value that which is good, true and honourable in the beliefs of others.

On Christmas Day, as Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are reminded again of the message of the Christmas angels who thronged the skies of the Middle East and declared: “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, peace to all his favour rests upon”.

Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson is the chaplain of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi and the author of Jesus of Arabia, which is available in English and Arabic

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