ABU DHABI // More than 30 Christian leaders held prayers at the site of a 7th century monastery on Abu Dhabi's Sir Bani Yas Island during a landmark visit sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and the National Programme for Tolerance.
The recitation of the Lord's Prayer by Christian leaders, including the regional archbishops of the Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches, is thought to be one of the first acts of corporate Christian prayer at the Nestorian monastery - one of the few to be uncovered in the Arabian Gulf - for several centuries.
The visit to the monastery by senior Christian clerics, among the first since its discovery by archaeologists in 1992, was part of a day of discussions on ways in which Christian communities in the UAE can contribute to the promotion of the Government's tolerance agenda, as laid out in the National Programme for Tolerance, launched last June.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister for Tolerance, hailed the discovery and preservation of the monastery as indicative of the UAE's long culture of tolerance and coexistence between religious traditions.
"Nations develop and flourish when they accept differences and work on their similarities," Sheikha Lubna told the leaders, who represent about four million Christians across the Arabian Gulf region.
"The emphasis being placed on this site is evidence of the commitment of the UAE towards its archaeology and history, particularly for sites such as this which represent our values of tolerance, coexistence and peace."
The visit to the site was also attended by leaders including Catholic bishops in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain and the Anglican bishop for Cyprus and the Gulf. Other traditions represented included the Mar Thoma Church, the Reformed Church in America, the Armenian, Coptic and Greek Orthodox churches, and the Evangelical Community Church of Abu Dhabi.
"We greatly appreciate the opportunity to visit this important site," Archbishop Barthelmaues Nathaniel Joseph, Patriarchal Vicar for the Arabian Gulf of the Syrian Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East of the Syrian Orthodox Church, said.
"Not only does it provide evidence of the presence of Christianity in the UAE just before and during the early years of Islam, but the way in which the leaders of the United Arab Emirates are devoting so much attention to its excavation and conservation is testimony to the way in which they, and the whole of the UAE, are devoted to the promotion of religious tolerance and freedom of worship today."
The site of the monastery was uncovered by archaeologists from the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey commissioned by Founder Sheikh Zayed.
Studies of the finds from the excavations and other research suggests the church and monastery may have been established in the early to mid 7th century, at a time when, prior to the coming of Islam, Christianity was present throughout eastern Arabia.
The church and monastery are believed to have been part of a network belonging to the Church of the East, or Nestorian Church, spread throughout the Arabian Gulf at the time. Sites have been found in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
"Looking at what has happened in places like Syria and parts of Iraq, one of the first things radicals are doing is to destroy the memory of the others," Bishop Paul Hinder of St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, said.
"What really has impressed me is the fact that Sheikh Zayed did the opposite. He didn't want to destroy or make the memory be forgotten, but he wanted to keep it alive."
The leaders had gathered in Abu Dhabi for the fourth annual Gulf Churches Fellowship conference, hosted by St Joseph's, the emirate's largest place of Catholic worship.