Abu Dhabi: As the UAE celebrates its 43rd National Day, the country’s religious freedom and tolerance have been praised by churches who say they are proud to contribute to the continued growth of the country.

Religious freedom has been a constant for the United Arab Emirates since its birth, with religious freedom enshrined within the UAE’s national constitution. Article 32 of the constitution states “freedom to exercise religious worship is guaranteed in accordance with established customs and provided it does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals”.

Speaking to Gulf News, Reverend Andrew Thompson, MBE, Senior Pastor at Abu Dhabi’s St. Andrews Church, praised Shaikh Zayed’s vision and leadership which was behind making the UAE a religiously tolerant society.

“The UAE was birthed out of the vision and effort of a remarkable leader — the late Shaikh Zayed. From the very beginning, the federal constitution embraced religious tolerance as a core value for the Emirati people.”

“Another foundational principle for the UAE is that Islam will be the religion of the local people. Religious freedom in the UAE is therefore defined in relation to the beliefs and values of Islam and for many people this comes as a surprise. For Shaikh Zayed, however, the hospitality and welcome he offered to all people regardless of race or creed flowed directly out of his religious convictions. This was a conviction shared by some of the other founding shaikhs of the UAE,” he said.

Reverend Thompson also gave several examples of the help and recognition given to the Christian community by the country’s leadership, such as providing land for churches, as well as appointing Reverend Thompson as the country’s ambassador for the recent G20 Interfaith Summit in Brisbane, Australia.

“The most obvious example of religious tolerance in the UAE is the fact that land has been given to the churches. Today, there are over 40 centres of Christian worship throughout the UAE. When you compare this with other countries in the GCC and in the Arabian Peninsula (the next closest country in terms of number of churches is six), the UAE is simply outstanding. It is not just the Christians who benefit from this hospitality but also other religions like the Sikhs and the Mormons.

“Recently we have seen the publication of books about Christianity in the UAE and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival showcased documentaries celebrating interfaith dialogue within the UAE. Last week, I was also privileged to be an ambassador for the UAE at the G20 Interfaith Summit in Brisbane, Australia. The stories that the UAE delegates shared about religious freedom were encouraging and heartwarming,” he said.

The pastor spoke of how the UAE’s religious freedom and diversity helps break down stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim world.

“With so much bad news," he said, "coming out of the Middle East with regard to the persecution of the Christian church, the UAE model of interfaith relations comes as really good news. It is important that we recognise that it is not just Christians who are suffering in the Middle East but that the lack of religious freedom impacts everybody, including the majority Islamic community.

"Recently, I listened to a scholar who provided empirical evidence for the relationship between religious freedom and economic prosperity. The UAE demonstrates the veracity of that research in that it is one of the most stable and economically successful countries in the region. Could the UAE’s success be a direct consequence of her commitment to religious freedom? I would like to think so.”

Challenging stereotypes

“One of the great things I celebrate about living in the UAE is challenging the stereotypes people in the West have of the Middle East and Islam. The story of the Christian community in the UAE is one of mutual respect and friendship — it really needs to be told more.

"The UAE has been home for my family and I for more than a decade and we love it. As an Anglican priest I work with one of the most friendly and hospitable governments in the region and I value the opportunities for interfaith friendships which abound here.”

Father Gandalf is a Catholic priest for the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia. The organisation has a number of churches in the UAE, including in Abu Dhabi such as St. Joseph’s Church.

Father Gandalf spoke of how the church was proud to be a part of the UAE and the country’s achievements: “In UAE, everybody identifies with the country and is proud of its achievements and happy to celebrate the National Day. Fifty years ago the first Catholic Church was blessed in Abu Dhabi, soon followed by the first Catholic school of St. Joseph. Now we have eight worship centres and schools in four emirates. We hope to grow further in the coming years.”

“We are guests, we are a minority, we are proud to contribute to the growth of the country and we feel secure thanks to the vigilance and wise leadership of our government,” he added.

- Sami Zaatari is a trainee at Gulf News