The Year of Tolerance will bring good news from a region so often associated with conflict and strife, religious leaders across the UAE have said.
Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Anglican, Sikh and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints religious groups said it would show the UAE’s leadership in the Arab world and underlined that the troubling global rise of intolerance can be confronted.
But they also urged everyone to promote tolerance and said that it was not just an Emirati issue.
Rev Andy Thompson, Anglican chaplain at St Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi, said the designation would build bridges and not walls.
“Who would have thought that a Muslim country would be calling the world’s attention back to pluralism. It is a wonderful surprise and unexpected,” said Rev Thompson.
“Many westerners only get bad news from the region but here is some good news,” he said.
UAE leaders announced the Year of Tolerance on Saturday. It followed news that Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, will visit the UAE in February and conduct a public Mass in Abu Dhabi.
Paul Hinder, Catholic bishop of Southern Arabia, said the Year of Tolerance would help people of different faiths to live in harmony.
“We, the Catholic Church here in the UAE, are elated by the news of Pope Francis’s visit in February 2019 and are thankful to the UAE government and its leaders,” said Mr Hinder.
“This UAE Year of Tolerance has helped to build further understanding of human values.”
Surender Singh Kandhari, chairman of the GuruNanak Darbar Sikh temple in Dubai, said the UAE was the only country promoting tolerance in this way. Mr Kandhari said the anti-discrimination law – criminalising all forms of prejudice on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin – that came into force in 2015 had also helped.
Mr Kandhari has contacted other religious leaders to work on a project to mark the year.
“People can talk about it but the important thing is to make a project to help promote it and understand it,” he said.
Many of the religious leaders said it was crucial to begin the work of promoting tolerance at school level, and classes in the subject should be explored.
“It starts with education, it starts with the young and comes from pulpit, universities and media. Intolerance is something we do naturally. Tolerance we need to learn,” said Rev Thompson. “But tolerance needs to be owned by everyone. Not just Emiratis.”
The theme for 2019 is also planned to be an extension of the Year of Zayed, a year dedicated to the Founding Father. Freedom to worship is not a new development for the UAE and Sheikh Zayed granted land for churches throughout his reign.
Leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church also welcomed the news. From a small congregation 40 years ago, there are 30,000 Coptic Orthodox Christians and eight churches across the UAE. “We enjoy a lot of freedom,” said Ashaia Haroun, deacon at St Antony Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abu Dhabi.