The UAE... in the aftermath of "the Year of Tolerance"

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The UAE... in the aftermath of "the Year of Tolerance"

By Fr. Dr. Rif'at Bader

I had the honor in 2019 to make three visits to fraternal United Arab Emirates. Every visit is related to an event:

In the first visit, February 2019, I participated in the summit conference on the "human fraternity" which culminated in the signing of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” by His Holiness Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad el-Tayeb.

The second visit was in October 2019. It took place at the invitation of Al-Ittihad newspaper marking its annual forum on tolerance. The third visit took place last November during which I was a participant and a speaker at the Second World Tolerance Summit in Dubai. There is effort for the attainment of tolerance in the UAE, yet this did not start only last year. Years ago, a law was passed that criminalizes any acts that stoke religious hatred or which insult religion through any form of expression. A Ministry of Tolerance was created bearing the name of tolerance dealing with deeds and initiatives.

Talking about tolerance, prior to the Year of Tolerance in the UAE, let me relate to you this event: In 2014, I was the new parish priest in the "Sacred Heart of Jesus Church" in Naour. In cooperation with Caritas Jordan (a branch of a Catholic relief organization) I hosted 51 forcibly displaced Christian Iraqis from Mosul in the wake of the ISIS attack. A total of 11 families stayed in the small parish hall for six months. Officials and diplomats used to visit us and take memorial photos with them before they leave. On a rainy evening, Dr. Hamdan Al Mazroui, chairman of the board of directors of the Emirates Red Crescent, visited me. We drank tea together, and he spoke with the forcibly displaced. He admired them and told me, "I will be back in a few days."

Two days later, he came back and said: "I came two days ago, and I never felt that you were refugees. I felt that you are brothers and friends. So, I met with His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Ben Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler's representative in the Al Dhafra region and chairman of the Red Crescent Authority. He told me that he would provide an amount of money so that every family would live in a separate house, rather than in the hall." The overwhelming joy that prevailed in the hall at the time was ineffable as the Emirates Red Crescent would help to map out a smile on the faces of the forcibly displaced Christians.

Being a year dedicated to tolerance is a beautiful thing, I would say first: Pope Benedict XVI had said in the Apostolic Exhortation: "Religious tolerance exists in several countries, but it does not lead to a concrete result because it remains limited to its scope of application. It is very important to move from religious tolerance to religious freedom." In November 2019, we celebrated in Jordan the 15th anniversary of the Amman Message, which was launched on Laylat al-Qadr in 2004, and in 2019, the UAE celebrated the Year of Tolerance.

Second: We have to work together (how beautiful the word together is). We must cooperate as countries, institutions, religions and cultures for an integrated human development that includes every human being and the entire humanity.

Third: Terrorism is still active, and this requires a double effort to attain two goals. First: To address the minds that have been plagued by intolerance, violent extremism, and intellectual venoms; and second to protect the sound minds. The UAE, my country Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have been active through King Abdullah Ben Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), in addition to the Vatican hoping that the power of goodness would prevail over the forces of evil and darkness. A few days ago, an Armenian Catholic priest was killed with his father in Syria. They were not killed for family feuds or with neighbors, but because they were Christians. Yes, there are still people in pain because of their faith and belief. How can we work together to alleviate these pains?

Fourth: Education and media. In his last address prior to his death, founder of ISIS Al-Baghdadi thanked the media that had supported his terrorist groups. Yes, the media may be fatal, indifferent or constructive, but let us encourage our intellectual and media institutions to be always on the side of life. Referring to the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” and to the statement of Catholic Patriarchs of the East, we find that there is an exigent need to start a new human education process based on full respect for humans.

Fifth: "The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together" represents a code of ethics and joint work projects where we have to focus on art, music and sports. These vast popular opportunities serve the values called for by the Document on Human Fraternity. We must encourage cooperation among countries in order to create--other than initiatives and gatherings related to interfaith dialogue and alliance of civilizations-- a new culture, namely the culture of acceptance of others, the culture of encounter, and the culture of cooperation for humanity.

Late Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran could not fulfill all his dreams, yet he was a man of dialogue par excellence. Let us continue the march, and pledge to humanity that we will complete the projects of civilization and acceptance of others together. “The human fraternity’’ project is a written document, but its implementation on the ground will be long-term. The UAE paved the way. My dear country, Jordan, was awarded the Lamp of Peace of Saint Francis and the Templeton Prize, but we need to export these messages to all countries of the world.

I conclude with what Tauran said in his first meeting at Al-Azhar as I was part of the Catholic delegation. He said, “Continuing the path of dialogue is a gift we offer to humanity. Stopping or freezing it is a gift in the hands of terrorism and terrorists. Let us all follow the path of the first gift.” Oh UAE, thank you for the busy year of tolerance; we are moving beyond that with you.

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