The U.A.E.'s low bar for religious tolerance


National Post, 7 February 2019

Christians in the Emirates are not free. They are just not in mortal danger, unlike in other parts of the Middle East

Pope Francis returned on Tuesday from a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates — the first-ever visit of a pope to the Arabian peninsula, where Islam was founded in the seventh century. It is one of the worst places on the planet to be a Christian.

The U.A.E. trip was hopeful and welcome, but also highlighted how fraught the situation of Christians in the Muslim world actually is.

The Pope signed a joint declaration of “human fraternity” with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the leading university in the Sunni world. While Islam does not have a central authority like the pope, Al-Azhar has sufficient history and prestige that its positions can be considered a leading institutional voice.

The declaration was the kind of windy document produced at international gatherings, full of noble ideals and soaring rhetoric. But it also included a specific condemnation of violence in the name of religion.

“We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood,” the joint declaration reads.

The declaration concluded an interfaith meeting on fraternity hosted in Abu Dhabi, which brought together some 700 religious leaders — Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others — to work toward greater tolerance and understanding.

The Emirates played host because such a gathering would be illegal in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and impossible to hold safely in, for example, Pakistan. Yet while good manners led Pope Francis to extol the U.A.E. as a land of “tolerance” and “coexistence,” the very fact the U.A.E. is considered praiseworthy indicates how bleak the situation for religious minorities is across the Islamic world.

Last year, the U.A.E. ranked 45th among the world’s top 50 nations regarding religious freedom according to Open Doors, a Protestant watchdog group that tracks anti-Christian persecution around the world. In the U.A.E., Christians are able to worship — sometimes in churches built by the Emirati government itself for its foreign worker population — but religious liberty does not exist in a fulsome way. But the bar is set so low for Muslim countries that the U.A.E. is hailed as a beacon of tolerance.

Easily impressed journalists covering the papal trip breathlessly reported that to honour the visit of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam, a new church and mosque are to be built in Abu Dhabi. The mosque will be named after the Grand Imam himself, the church after St. Francis, the Holy Father’s patron saint.

While the church and mosque side-by-side can be presented as a model of co-operation, more often the reality is one of harassment. Twenty years ago I spent Christmas in the U.A.E., visiting the Catholic churches in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They had been built with government patronage and goodwill, separated by some distance from local mosques, so as to avoid provocation.

In short order, local Muslims built mosques immediately next door, from which the amplified call-to-prayer can be blasted at the churches to disrupt services. Rather naive, I wondered how it was that the muezzin seemed not to follow the usual schedule, but hit maximum volume just when the Catholic liturgy was underway. Nobody there had to ask why.

But in the U.A.E. it is not illegal to be a Christian, as it is next door in Saudi Arabia. Christians are not violently expelled from their homes, as in Iraq and Syria. Christians do not risk being massacred as they gather for Christmas, as in Egypt. Christians are not arrested and sentenced to death for “blasphemy,” as in Pakistan. The religious sisters of Mother Teresa, who care for the poorest of the poor, are not murdered, as they were in Yemen in 1998 and 2016.

There are not jihadist terror groups that bomb churches, killing people at prayer, as happened last week in the Muslim part of the Philippines.

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