CHRISTIAN leaders from around the Arabian Gulf held prayers last month in the remains of a seventh-century monastery in the United Arab Emirates, in one of the first corporate acts of Christian worship at the site in more than 1200 years.
The Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, the Rt Revd Michael Lewis, joined regional archbishops of Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Churches, Roman Catholic bishops, and leaders from other traditions in saying the Lord’s Prayer at the site of the Nestorian monastery.
The visit was sponsored by the UAE government’s National Programme for Tolerance, and the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi, to coincide with the fourth annual meeting of the Gulf Churches Fellowship.
“This visit felt like a real and unfeigned acceptance of loving hospitality from the UAE government — one that powerfully challenges some stereotypes of Islam that are so often put on display,” Bishop Lewis said.
“The fact that we were able to say the Lord’s Prayer all together in such a place was pretty special.”
In an address to clergy after the visit, the UAE’s Minister for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, said that the discovery and preservation of the monastery was proof of the country’s commitment to peaceful coexistence between religious traditions. “Nations develop and flourish when they accept differences and work on their similarities,” she said.
“The emphasis being placed on this site is evidence of the commitment of the UAE towards its archaeology and history, particularly for sites such as this which represent our values of tolerance, coexistence and peace.”
The site of the monastery, located on Sir Bani Yas island within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, was discovered by archeologists in 1992. Studies of the finds from the excavations and other research suggest that it was part of a network that belonged to the Church of the East, or Nestorian Church, spread throughout the Arabian Gulf at the time. Similar sites have been uncovered in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
There are just under a million Christians in the UAE — many of them from the Philippines and South India — out of a total population of just over nine million. Expatriates make up about 90 per cent of the country’s population.
The country passed an anti-discrimination law in 2015, banning acts that insult religion or stoke religious hatred. An Emirati Muslim was tried in a local court last year for allegedly mocking Christianity in a video clip posted on Instagram.