When you hear “Hallelujah” booming from speakers as Pope Francis delivers Mass for an estimated 180,000 people in a country in Middle East, you know you are witnessing something special.
This is not a scene from a fictional setting, on the contrary, the event happened in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, a country that continues to break new ground as the bastion of religious tolerance and harmony. When the Pope addressed the thousands in attendance at the Zayed Sports City Stadium, it was the first such display of Christian worship of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula in modern times and a template for resolving differences and living in peace in harmony for other nations of the world.
For the UAE, it was just another step in its continued role as a melting pot for cultures, ethnicities and religions living side-by-side in harmony, peace and tolerance. In the same event that took place in 2019, prayers were later delivered in a host of languages in recognition of the diverse crowd, including French, Tagalog of the Philippines and the Indian language of Konkani, thereby underlining the richly layered and diverse diasporas that have come to enrich and enhance the uniqueness of the UAE and make it a case study on how to do things right.
People from all over the world have and continue to flock to the UAE every day, drawn by business and labour opportunities and by this invisible yet palpable dome of inclusivity and peace that others can only dream of. Today, of the approximately 10.08 million people who call the UAE home, more than 88 per cent are expats. Muslims make up the overwhelming majority religious community at almost 74 per cent of the population following Islam. Christians make up the second largest community at 14 per cent, followed by Hindus at 8.65 per cent, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews clocking in at 2.2, 0.61 and .03 per cent respectively.
Catholics and Protestants form a large proportion of the Christian population in the UAE. The country has over 45 churches, with many of the followers being of Asian, African, and European descent, along with fellow Middle Eastern countries Lebanon, Syria, and other countries. In April 2020, a Latter-day Saint temple was also announced in Dubai. Hinduism and Jainism are practiced by a large percentage of the community of Indians and Pakistani Sindhis living in the UAE. There is also a Sikh Gurdwara in the south of Dubai, located in Jebel Ali.
The UAE’s history with non-Muslim faiths is rooted in the humble beginnings of the young country and is part of the story of its rise from poverty into a global economic power. Thus, people from Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism all played a part and had a foothold in the Emirates and were communities before the Emirates gained independence and entered the United Nations in 1971. The communities grew in size as the UAE’s oil industry absorbed influxes of expatriate engineers, administrators, and oil rig workers.
In Dubai alone, there are more than 40 churches and dozens more Christian denominations that share chapels, a large Sikh temple, a Buddhist temple, and two Hindu temples, and several informal Jewish prayer groups and a new Hindu temple as well. All these different faith communities and cultures work together and pray side by side to the point that they have become indispensable to one another. While the world witnesses clashes of ideology and beliefs, in the UAE, they make it work everyday as the invisible, yet indomitable glue that holds them together, the fabric of tolerance that shades all of them from the glare of conflict, continues to stretch overhead. All find a shared community in prayer.
Thus, the tale of the UAE’s ecosystem of tolerance and inclusivity is an organic story of growth, acceptance and tolerance that needs to be promoted and shown to the world as a case study as to how to go about creating unity and build a nation that is greater than the sum of its parts.