,Christian Science Monitor•June 11, 2019
Indian women in saris carefully place candles at an outdoor grotto of the Virgin Mary and kneel in prayer as couples from Uganda and Nigeria pour into the nearby chapel.
Arab Chaldeans, Maronites, and Latin Catholics laugh together as they enter a unified Arabic-language Catholic church service; Egyptian and Sudanese families gather in front of the next-door Coptic church; and English expats head into the Anglican church.
Pakistani bus drivers snap pictures with their phones as 15 Filipino brides and grooms pose for wedding photos outside St. Joseph’s Church ahead of their mass wedding.
All the while, Filipinos line up for mashed purple yam cakes and polvorón shortbread at an outdoor bake sale in the church courtyard, with the Islamic call to prayer from the neighboring Jesus Son of Mariam Mosque ringing out overhead.
This is not an international festival; it’s a Sunday in Abu Dhabi.
Owing to the arrival of migrants from across the world, the collection of tiny Arab Emirates at the tip of the Persian Gulf – an international financial powerhouse and a growing diplomatic and military power in the Arab world – has become a seamless meeting place of faiths and cultures.
The United Arab Emirates is also billing itself as an interfaith leader, having declared 2019 to be a national “year of tolerance” that was headlined with a visit by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi in February – the first-ever papal visit to the Gulf in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
But even as this oil-rich country’s rulers promote harmony, the country’s ultraconservative laws strictly forbid these faithful from seeking to convert Muslims or from publicly displaying crosses. Its neighbors and close allies promote an austere interpretation of Islam with less tolerant attitudes toward other organized religions. Saudi Arabia, its closest ally, has banned the building of churches or temples.
The lure of the Islamic State group remains for some in the region, while an uneasy gray area exists between violent extremist movements and conservative Muslim televangelists who dominate Gulf airwaves and are suspicious of other faiths.
So the question remains: Can this petrodollar expat haven of sleek skyscrapers and polished public-relations campaigns truly be a beacon for interfaith tolerance in the Muslim Gulf and the wider Middle East?
More is at stake than a simple PR campaign.
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