In UAE, Christmas is about building bridges

The UAE’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious worship and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.
Sunday 24/12/2017
Celebrating tolerance. A man dressed as Santa Claus waves at a shopping mall in Abu Dhabi, on December 16. (Reuters)
Celebrating tolerance. A man dressed as Santa Claus waves at a shopping mall in Abu Dhabi, on December 16. (Reuters)

Abu Dhabi - The streets of the United Arab Emirates are deco­rated with so many lights in December that the cit­ies’ neighbourhoods take on the festive look of communities preparing for Christmas.

December 2 in the UAE is National Day, an occasion that has taken on greater significance in recent years. Decorations in public spaces cel­ebrate the day and remain through­out the Christmas season, which is why the country takes on its very festive look.

Official figures state that 100% of UAE citizens are Muslim, which means celebrating Christmas is not their norm. In the UAE, where less than 15% of the population is Emira­ti, the country is arguably one of the most tolerant in the world. The last six weeks of 2017 says everything you need to know about the truth behind this statement.

UAE Prime Minister and Dubai Emir Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has announced that the pedestrian bridge over the recently built Dubai Canal had been named “Tolerance Bridge.” With more than 30 churches in all seven emirates, the UAE practises the meaning be­hind the name of the bridge.

“Love and tolerance are bridges of communication and a universal language, binding humanity across different languages, religions and cultures,” said an Arabic video that Sheikh Mohammed tweeted on No­vember 15. “These are the founda­tions of the Emirates.”

The 2016 US Report on Interna­tional Religious Freedom said the UAE government continues to pro­vide land for Christian churches (as well as Sikh and Hindu temples). The UAE also provides land for non- Islamic cemeteries and cremation facilities for the country’s large Hin­du community.

Dig a little deeper, however, and there is considerably more to dis­cover.

On December 5, and running for three days, Abu Dhabi was host for the fourth Forum for Promot­ing Peace in Muslim Societies. This year’s theme was “World Peace and Islamophobia.” “The gathering of Islamic scholars and intellectuals [aimed] to promote the culture of tolerance and peace and to break the vicious cycles of suspicion, fear and intimidation against Muslims around the world,” reported WAM, the official news agency of the UAE.

The country’s constitution guar­antees freedom of religious wor­ship and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The UAE’s Anti-Discrimination Law, which became official in July 2015, states that any form of discrimina­tion against people and religion is outlawed.

The country appointed the world’s first Minister of Tolerance in Febru­ary 2016 and this individual was, naturally, a woman: Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan al-Qasimi. The person who currently has the posi­tion is Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan.

On November 21, Lebanese lawyer Samir Salloum and his son Ziad were knighted by the Vatican. Bishop Paul Hinder, the apostolic vicar for South­ern Arabia, honoured the two men, who are lawyers in the UAE, at St Jo­seph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi. In at­tendance for the ceremony was — of course — Sheikh Nahyan.

The two Lebanese men were laud­ed for helping the church and its pa­rishioners. Samir Salloum was quot­ed by local media as saying: “The church itself is proof that the UAE, since inception, has been a tolerant country, accepting of other religions and accepting of others.”

The UAE government’s rela­tionship with the Roman Catholic Church is deepening.

In June 2016, Sheikha Lubna met with Pope Francis and formally de­livered an invitation for him to visit the UAE, the National Catholic Reg­ister reported.

Also that month, the UAE cabinet approved a national programme for tolerance. At the meeting, as re­ported by WAM, Sheikh Mohammed said: “Tolerance is a key value of our ancestors and our founding fathers.”

In September 2016, Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, met with the pope to discuss enhanc­ing and developing ties between the Vatican and the UAE.

In June 2017, the Sheikh Moham­med bin Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi was renamed the Mariam, Umm Eisa mosque, which translates from Ara­bic as “Mary, Mother of Jesus.” WAM reported that members of the Chris­tian community in the UAE said the renaming of the mosque was “an example of mutual tolerance and peaceful coexistence” between reli­gions.

For UAE residents who pay little attention to the news, there are the bright lights of Christmas to remind them of the tolerance in the Arabian Peninsula.

As December 25 approaches, re­tail outlets throughout the UAE sell Christmas decorations as well as Christmas trees — from artificial ones to fir, spruce and pine trees. Uber will even deliver a newly pur­chased tree to your door. Santas are aplenty in the malls and dozens of tree-lighting ceremonies occur across the country. Of course, Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s most expensive Christmas tree, which was unveiled for the first time in 2010 at Emirates Palace. Guinness World Records made it official in May 2011, when it valued the Christ­mas tree at $11.5 million. (It was so expensive because of the jewellery used to decorate the tree that came from the hotel’s gift shop.)

When announcing the naming of Tolerance Bridge, Sheikh Moham­med said in another tweet: “Toler­ance is synonymous with the UAE. Tolerance is an obligation as all peo­ple are created equal by God, wheth­er they are Muslim or not. People from more than 200 nationalities live in the UAE in harmony, working together without racism discrimina­tion or intolerance.”

In the UAE, the country’s leader­ship practises what it preaches.