Abu Dhabi, 18 January, 2017.
The Gulf Churches Fellowship, a body which primarily consists of executive church leaders from the officially recognized churches present in the Gulf concluded its two day annual meeting (16-17 January 2017) with a visit to the archaeological site of a 7th century AD monastery on the Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
The visit underpins the rich heritage and history of a peaceful co-existence of religions in the UAE and was organized by the Ministry for Tolerance. Her Excellency Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi, Cabinet Member and Minister of State for Tolerance addressed the GCF members who came from the countries of the Arabian Gulf.
Some GCF members are expatriates from the Middle East, Europe, USA and Asia. In addition, two UAE residents, from Iraq, of the same faith tradition as the monks of Sir Bani Yas Island Monastery were on the trip and it was a momentous day for them to witness their faith heritage. Evidence has shown that the monastery existed for about 200 years and there are no signs of destruction by war or suppression.
Sheikha Lubna explained that the values of co-existence, tolerance and peace have always been part of the fabric of the UAE and that its founding leaders exemplified this through their leadership; the ministry is set up to uphold these values, preserve them and pass on the legacy to the youth of the nation so that they may continue to be positive, be open to all they interact with, and thus be enriched by every person within the diverse society of the UAE.
GCF Executive Committee member Reverend Dr. William Schwartz said, “Leaders of Churches in the GCC countries welcome opportunities to increase cooperation between our Churches, and between peoples of different religious and social traditions within the incredibly diverse mix of nationalities who find themselves living and working in the Gulf. Although each ethnic and religious grouping strongly desires to be understood by others, the Leaders of the Churches are working together to encourage movements toward mutual understanding, peaceful coexistence and strengthening the social dynamics that make up the societies where we live. The annual meeting of the Gulf Churches Fellowship is greatly facilitated by the intentional and direct policies of the UAE government regarding tolerance of non-Muslims living in the country, for which we are very grateful.”
Sheikha Lubna further explained that the ministry acts as an incubator for these values and that it is the duty of each community and its religious leaders living in the country to promote cohesive family values through its actions and deeds. She urged the Christian leaders to continue their good work in their communities and continue to work in peace and harmony.
Commenting on the visit to Sir Bani Yas Island, Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia said, “The visit to Sir Bani Yas Island has a deep meaning for me. That we are visiting the Island under the patronage of the Minister for Tolerance underlines the importance. The discovery of the Christian monastery at Sir Bani Yas reminds us that Christianity was present in the region very early and coexisted with Islam for a longer period. This is a strong sign for what is again happening in recent times thanks to the open-minded rulers of the UAE. We, the expatriate Christians, want to contribute to a society which shows that religions, even in their diversity must not be a reason for war but can be a strong sign of building up justice and peace. We are grateful for the hospitality we enjoy and willing to contribute our part that the UAE remains a model of tolerance and mutual respect, founded in our common belief in God, which is for us all a constant incentive for goodness.”
The Executive Committee of the GCF hailed the efforts of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Force and Her Excellency Sheikha Lubna for their vision and commitment to building a society where the value of tolerance is not just mere talk but is a lived and shared experience.
The primary focus of the GCF is to help churches in the Gulf to communicate with each other, learn from their peers and share experiences. Since its inception in 2012 the member churches of the GCF have progressively used the platform to grow in relationship with each other, identified areas of shared ministry and concerns, joined and supported each other in communicating with governments.
Archbishop Makarios of Qatar Greek Orthodox Church summed up the sentiments of the GCF and said, “The GCF is encouraged and enthusiastic about the steps that the UAE Ministry for Tolerance has taken toward promoting ethics and human values in terms of religious co-existence, in particular, its recognition of Christian heritage in this region and giving it its rightful place in the historical narrative. To educate the world about the rich diversity that characterized this land long ago, is to do justice to those who came before us, and to set a critical example for our brothers and sisters around the world. At a time of violent tumult in the Middle East, which has devastated the vibrant cultural, ethnic, and religious tapestry, the Christian communities are willing to work in our respective capacities and locations, in conjunction with the Ministry for Tolerance under the leadership of Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi, to promote this region as a beacon of hope and tolerance. We welcome people of good will to visit the archeological site Monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island to see the interaction between Christian and Muslims, to witness the potential of humanity when mutual respect is our foundation.”