Religion is a positive force in the world and, in the UAE, everyone is free to practice their faith in peace.
That is the message Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak hopes to deliver two weeks before the UAE enters the Year of Tolerance.
Speaking exclusively to The National, the Minister of Tolerance said the UAE's focus next year will be to promote peaceful coexistence and an open, respectful dialogue among the country's diverse population.
"Our focus should always be on bringing down the walls of misunderstanding and reviving the traditions of tolerance and useful exchange of ideas and concerns,” he said on Wednesday.
He said President Sheikh Khalifa’s announcement declaring 2019 as the Year of Tolerance could not have been more perfectly timed.
“Having 2019 as the Year of Tolerance comes as a natural extension of the Year of Zayed in 2018,” he said.
“Our leaders recognise that the world needs to be reminded of the importance of tolerance to peace, security and prosperity.”
He said next year will be key in promoting the UAE’s model of tolerance and “prosperous coexistence to the wold.”
The Year of Tolerance will make a strong start with a landmark visit to Abu Dhabi from Pope Francis scheduled in February — the pontiff’s first trip to the Gulf.
“It is indeed an honour to welcome His Holiness the Pope to our country,” said Sheikh Nahyan.
“The visit of Pope Francis is a celebration of the value of dialogue among peoples of different religions and beliefs.
"It clearly shows that dialogue does not require us to abandon our identities but it means holding our deepest differences not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.”
The pope’s highly publicised visit will include delivering Mass to more than 100,000 people.
“We look forward to seeing the Sheikh Zayed Sports City full of worshippers,” Sheikh Nahyan said. “We recognise the role of religion as a major positive force in this world.”
Residents from almost every country in the world live in the Emirates and Sheikh Nahyan said he believes the reason for this is the country's respect for diversity.
“All new arrivals to our country come to understand this quickly and readily and for some it is a surprise but all thrive because of it,” he said.
“Our Arabic-Islamic heritage has enabled us to engage our extremely diverse population. We have welcomed them, engaged them in dialogue, sought to understand our differences, and rejoiced in our shared values.”
The tolerance established within the country is the result of a strong foundation, he said.
Values of peaceful coexistence and harmonious integration have been championed in the UAE since before the formation of the emirates by Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, who ruled Abu Dhabi until 1966, and then by the Founding Father Sheikh Zayed.
"When the late Sheikh Zayed established our nation, he acted on the strong belief that honest, good-faith dialogue among people of diverse cultures and backgrounds will help to make our society to be peaceful and prosperous," Sheikh Nahyan said.
Tolerance has since become institutionalised in legislation — with the anti-discrimination law — and in schools where young men and women are being trained to become “Champions of Tolerance”.
"We in the UAE know full well that tolerance does not flourish without hard work. Thus, we are focused on ensuring that the educational experience of our country’s young men and women results in their understanding the necessary value of tolerance.”
He said young people will have a key role to play during the Year of Tolerance.
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“Young people have passion, they have enthusiasm, they have boundless energy, they are optimistic, they care about others and the world will be a better place because of them,” he said.
Plans for the Year of Tolerance are now under way with the aim of promoting understanding in all forms of communication.
The Government will support this through “societal and legislative initiatives that fight hate, promote mutual respect, and celebrate our shared human values," Sheikh Nahyan said.
The Ministry of Tolerance will organise activities, with its many partners, that satisfy the goals outlined by the President and the Cabinet-approved National Tolerance Programme.
"The declaration and the programme focus on five major areas: the government as an incubator of tolerance; the family and tolerance; youth and tolerance; research and knowledge development; and the UAE’s international obligations in the field of tolerance and coexistence," Sheikh Nahyan said.
Through its activities, the ministry aims to fight prejudice, ignorance, fear and hate, and to promote dialogue and mutual respect.
Sheikh Nahyan called on all religious, ethnic and community groups to be get involved and in the planned initiatives and activities to make the year a success.
He said that it is a tremendous privilege and responsibility to be the world’s first and only Minister of Tolerance but that his success could be measured “by the extent to which we can involve all members of the whole society in our work".
“Next year will allow all of the people of the UAE a chance to reflect on what they have achieved together in this pluralistic and brilliantly diverse country".