UAE opens interfaith center as symbol of tolerance, but religious strictures remain

Newly launched Abrahamic Family House has a mosque, church and synagogue, with security tight amid concerns over Iran and other opponents of Israel

A general view of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, at the Abrahamic Family House, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
A general view of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, at the Abrahamic Family House, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — On the shores of the Persian Gulf, a new complex houses a Catholic church, a Jewish synagogue and an Islamic mosque in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The Abrahamic Family House offers a concrete, marble and oak manifestation of the UAE’s publicized push toward tolerance after hosting Pope Francis in 2019 and later diplomatically recognizing Israel in 2020. Worshippers have already prayed and communed at the site on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, while the general public will be allowed in next month.

However, the UAE still criminalizes proselytizing outside of the Islamic faith. Security also remains a concern as well for Jewish worshippers in this new outpost on the Arabian Peninsula, whether from Israel’s regional enemy Iran or from those angered by Israel pursuing settlements on land Palestinians seek for their future state.

Organizers declined to speak on camera Tuesday to The Associated Press about the project, even as they led journalists around the site.

The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, announced plans for the Abrahamic Family House in 2019 during the country’s “Year of Tolerance.” Designed by the British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, the site includes the three houses of worship and a center connecting them for future events.

The site itself stands out as a stark, white-marble place of worship in a capital more known for its oil industry, ongoing arms fair, glass towers and beachfront hotels. The three houses of worship — the St. Francis of Assisi Church, the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue and the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque — stand at triangle points, each a structure of about 30 cubic meters (1,060 cubic feet).

From left to right, the three houses of worship, the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque and the St. Francis of Assisi Church, at the Abrahamic Family House, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Triangular fountains lay set inside parts of the grounds, providing a bubbling background against the sound of construction taking place elsewhere on an island that is already home to the domed Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum opened under an agreement with France. Behind the site, the massive falcon wings of the under-construction Zayed National Museum rise overhead as workers climbed through its scaffolding on Tuesday.

While each house of worship is the same size, all appear different on the inside. In the church, eastward windows with morning light frame a marble altar and lectern with a crucifix above it. Oaken pews sit inside for the faithful under suspended wooden columns hanging from the ceiling.

Related: Arab world’s ‘1st purpose-built synagogue in century’ opens at UAE interfaith center

The synagogue has similar pews, with the Ten Commandments inscribed in Hebrew at the front. A room for the Torah is located behind the front. Bronze netting hangs from the ceiling, playing with the light from the windows and a skylight above.

The mosque has shelves for the Quran and also outside, for the faithful to remove their shoes, hidden behind Islamic geometric designs. Gray carpeting covers the floor, with two microphones under and one above on the minbar, the platform where the imam stands for Friday prayers. Moveable walls separate the men’s and women’s sections.

Officials gave no figure for the cost of construction of the site, though the materials alone likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

A view of part of the design, at the Abrahamic Family House, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Still, proselytizing outside of the Islamic faith remains illegal in the UAE and Islam is enshrined as the official religion in the country’s constitution, with government websites even offering online applications to convert. Conversion from Islam to another religion, however, is illegal, as is witchcraft and sorcery, the US State Department has warned.

Blasphemy and apostasy laws also carry a possible death sentence — though no such execution is known to have been carried out since the UAE became a nation in 1971. Despite facing restrictions, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others in the UAE have never faced the violence that has targeted their communities in Syria and Iraq during the rise of the Islamic State group and other militants.

Security appears to be a major concern for the site. Though hidden as much as possible, metal detectors screen those coming into the facility. Security cameras can be seen at every major corner, both inside and outside the houses of worship. On Tuesday, black-suited private security guards also ran mirrors around vehicles to check their undercarriages for explosives — a measure rarely seen in the Emirates.

Hard-line media in Iran have previously described the UAE as a “legitimate” target, given its recognition of Israel.

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