In a speech given last week in the UK, Lord David Alton argued that the issue of religious freedom be “given greater political and diplomatic priority, to insist on the importance of religious literacy as a competence, to discuss the crossover between freedom of religion and belief and a nation’s prosperity and stability and to reflect on the suffering of those denied this foundational freedom”.
He referred to current examples of appalling abuses of religious freedom, several of which were in Middle Eastern countries.
This region is characterised in much of the western media as a hotbed of religious persecution and violence, although the UAE stands out for the opposite reason. Christians and people of other faiths can worship here without fear of intimidation. So, what makes this country different?
The answer does not seem to be due to any distinctive beliefs (though the UAE is proudly and authentically Islamic). Dubai and Abu Dhabi, for instance, subscribe to the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, whereas Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah are historically Wahhabi.
A part of the answer must lie in the encounters between the founding leaders of the UAE and the extraordinary pioneers who came to live in the Trucial States before the discovery of oil.
Perhaps the best known example is the late Sheikh Zayed inviting Dr Pat Kennedy to start a hospital in Al Ain.
Although Dr Kennedy wore his Christian faith on his sleeve, Sheikh Zayed was not troubled by this. Indeed, Dr Kennedy’s faith was often a topic of conversation between the two men. Others who worked there also inspired a deep respect and affection including Gertrude Dyke, who is remembered as “Dr Latifa” by Emiratis.
Less known is the Sarah Hosman Hospital in Sharjah, which opened in 1951.
Dr Hosman would go and visit the tribes in the desert on medical tours riding on a mule. Her story was even more inspiring when one discovers she had a wooden leg. Many members of the present day ruling family of Sharjah were born in her hospital.
Again, she had a vibrant Christian faith in which she and her staff openly shared their religious convictions with the local patients, a privilege that rarely seemed to cause offence.
An equally formidable and inspiring Christian pioneer is Wilhelmina van de Weg who also earned the respect and affection of the local people in Fujairah for serving the people selflessly through the maternity clinic.
The shared attributes of all these pioneer Christian workers were a deep understanding of the local people, fluency in Arabic and a heart to serve with equity all sectors of Arab society – and to do so without seeking personal financial gain.
They were also all overt in the expression of their Christian faith.
The significance of these workers is that they gave the visionary founding sheikhs of the UAE a concrete example of the mutual benefits of interfaith tolerance. This mutual benefit is not a small matter. For example, one benefit in allowing Christians to establish the Oasis hospital in Al Ain was the plummeting of the infant mortality rate from more than 50 per cent to 1 per cent.
Schools also benefited. Some of the earliest and most effective providers of mass education in this country include the Roman Catholic Church, with teachers coming from monastic orders and the religious sisterhoods.
The huge Gems organisation traces its roots to the educational vision of the Varkey family, who are devout members of the Marthoma Church from South India.
In return, the open mindedness and hospitality of the Emirati people has benefited those of other faiths.
They have created a calm environment in a turbulent global economy, in which people from all over the world can find a spiritual refuge, as well as economic security.
More importantly, expatriates encounter an Islam that is confident, secure and embraces diversity of faiths and peoples in an atmosphere of acceptance.
All this was highlighted in the new anti-discrimination law passed last week. This is unique in the Islamic world.
The UAE continues a proud and distinctive commitment to religious freedom and tolerance. It is a tradition that can be firmly traced back to the vision and values of the country’s founding fathers.
Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson MBE is senior Anglican chaplain of St Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi and author of Christianity in the UAE and Jesus of Arabia