Sheikh Mohammed's mosque renaming conveys a beautiful message

The gesture highlights the UAE's commitment to tolerance.

The Mohammed bin Zayed Mosque is a stunningly beautiful place of worship. The four minarets signal its royal benefactor – only the ruling family can build mosques with more than two minarets; it is also a place where muezzins are trained. It is a place of gathering in Abu Dhabi for the religious leaders.

What sets this mosque apart, however, is the neighbourhood. The Anglican church of St Andrew’s, the Roman Catholic Church of St Joseph and the Egyptian Coptic Church of St Antonio’s, all share the same car park. It is in this context that the renaming of the mosque to that of Mary, Mother of Jesus is especially poignant. As one wit recently commented: "St Mary’s is now the new centre of worship on the block’’. It is now the only religious building in Mushrif dedicated to a woman. Is this also a reflection of the UAE’s commitment to empowering women?

St Mary is a central figure in the Christian faith. Every Christmas, her story is retold in churches all over the world. A teenage Palestinian Jewish girl was chosen by God to give birth to a great prophet and the Messiah. That baby boy went on to become a history maker. His teachings and example have shaped the lives of millions. Jesus is loved and respected by both Christians and Muslims. Many Christians are surprised to learn that Mary has a whole chapter in the Quran named after her. In Arabic, Mary is called Maryam. They are even more surprised to learn that in common with Christians, Muslims also believe in the Virgin Birth and see the arrival of Jesus as a sign from God.

Mary is upheld as a woman of great faith, a true servant of God and honoured for her obedience to a calling that was fraught with misunderstanding and danger. Her life was not without pain and grief. She was a refugee and a teenage unwed mother. She endured poverty and injustice, and suffered under the oppressive shadow of imperialist Rome. Yet she was chosen by God and centuries later the world continues to remember her as an ordinary woman with an extraordinary mission.

Mary speaks to our times today. In a sense nothing has changed in the world. The number of refugees continue to grow. Sectarian violence is a frightening reality all over the world, while poverty and injustice are ever present. The predicament of pregnant teenage girls remains fraught and dangerous. Yet the life of one seemingly insignificant woman contained a hope that prevailed. The pivotal faith of Mary, burning bright against a bleak landscape, shows how God delights to use the weak and the marginalised to bring about change.

For Christians and Muslims, faith in God is the heartbeat of their daily existence. A regular prayer and scripture reading is what sustains them. The liberating role of faith in God simply cannot be underestimated.

This is why the rise of violence in the name of God troubles us. The prevalence of intolerance within the religious communities is a departure from their core conviction that their divine imperative is to love God and love their neighbour. A narrative that divides the world into "us" and "them" fails to recognise the teaching that we are all created in the image of God.

Today, Muslims and Christians pray for peace and tolerance and for leaders who will embody our hopes and values. They look to a time when orthodoxy is reflected in orthopraxy. That is, good religion is manifested through good behaviour.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, understands this need; hence the renaming of the mosque. The gesture highlights the UAE's commitment to tolerance. The response of the Christian community has been one of delightful surprise, often followed by a recognition of what this means for them.

By renaming the mosque after Mary, both Christians and Muslims are challenged to the call to be obedient to God and prevail over the threat of intolerance.

The Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson MBE is the senior Anglican chaplain in Abu Dhabi and the author of Christianity in the UAE and Jesus of Arabia