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The Year of Tolerance

1 June 2019

In a momentous global event, the UAE’s Year of Tolerance promises an acceptance that goes beyond mere race or gender

There are historic moments – and then there’s the first ever visit of the Pope to the Arabian Peninsula. When Pope Francis arrived in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year after an invitation from His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone. But it wasn’t just a good photo opportunity. The pontiff talked of “a new page in the history of relations between religions, confirming that we are brothers and sisters, even though we are different.” As for the Crown Prince, it was proof that the UAE’s much-heralded “Year Of Tolerance” was more than just words. The 180,000 people of all nations and religions who gathered for mass at Zayed Sports City were testament to that.

“It was a stunning start to the Year of Tolerance,” agrees Reverend Canon Andy Thompson, Senior Chaplain at St Andrew’s Church, Abu Dhabi. “I wept through most of the papal mass because the atmosphere in the stadium was so joyful and expectant.

“For me it was deeply moving as a worship experience, but more than that, it was incredible to witness how an Islamic nation could foster such a spirit of welcome, hospitality and embrace the non-Muslim communities in their midst. The vision and creativity of the UAE in making this happen is truly inspiring.” Reverend Thompson admits that it is possible to live in a cultural bubble in the UAE, isolated from “those who are not like us.” But what encourages him particularly about the Year Of Tolerance is that it celebrates diversity and demands a positive climate of coexistence. “The UAE is being deliberate and purposeful in its strategy of promoting tolerance. Not least because it is an antidote to extremism in whatever form it takes,” he says.

And Canon Thompson has – literally – written the book on coexistence. Celebrating Tolerance: Religious Diversity in the UAE was published earlier this year as a response by religious leaders to the impressive intentions of the newly-formed Ministry of Tolerance. Pulling together religious communities’ experiences of living, working and worshipping in the UAE, it’s a positive, hopeful book that begins with Thompson recalling the time he stood in the garden of his vicarage in Abu Dhabi. to his right was the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque; in front, the huge campus of the Roman Catholic Church of St Joseph.

“One starry night, we hosted a Passover meal in our garden and as the Psalms began to be chanted in Hebrew, suddenly the call to prayer rang out plaintively from the minaret next door,” he recalls. “At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church who were holding an open air meeting in their courtyard burst into a song of praise – a Christian hymn of worship to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For a profound moment, the Hebrew chanting, the Arabic call to prayer and a traditional English hymn collided in the air over the garden. It sent shivers down my spine and I wondered, where else in the world would you experience this?”

And where else, indeed, would the CEO of Dubai Airports end up playing the organ for the papal mass in front of 180,000 people? But that’s exactly what came to pass when Paul Griffiths was called just before Christmas and asked if he’d take up the challenge. “You’d think that the butterflies in your stomach would just be going crazy but actually on the day, sitting there on the organ in front of the crowds I just had this sense of calm,” he laughs. “So I just concentrated on getting all the notes right and hoped that everyone else was enjoying it as much as me.”

Griffiths wasn’t being thrown completely in at the deep end; he’s an accomplished organist as well as being at the helm of one of the most successful airports in the world. But he admits to taking a deep breath when the Pope arrived. “He got a better reception than any rock star, it was just amazing,” says Griffiths. “But more than that, every single nation with a resident here was represented, the prayers were in many different languages and it was such a powerful, genuine statement and event. The UAE knocked it out of the park.”

“It was amazing to meet the Pope,” added Emirati martial artist Chaica Al Qassimi. “His visit made a lot of impact across the country and to me personally because it showed people that we should respect and accept everyone.” Al Qassimi is proof positive that the papal visit and the Year Of Tolerance has already had a huge impact. Born with Down’s Syndrome, she recently took part in the torch run, spoke at the opening ceremony and was even a judo judge at the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.

“It was an incredible opportunity for my homeland to show the huge steps that have been made in integrating people like myself into every aspect of society,” she says. “Sport has the ability to empower people and teach a sense of achievement, belonging and friendship in athletes and form lifelong friendships among teammates.

“It was an inspiring and fully unified event that has brought together people with and without intellectual disabilities and of all backgrounds and ages to work with each other towards achieving a common goal of inclusion.”

Al Qassimi says she will never forget speaking at the Opening Ceremony; her plea for acceptance – “no matter who we are, inclusion of all people is what matters as we are all human beings” – was widely praised and had a genuine power: every community the athletes went on to visit welcomed them with “open arms, loud cheers and big smiles.” But Al Qassimi was thinking bigger than individual communities. She believes the Special Olympics World Games and The Year Of Tolerance, with their shared aims of acceptance and inclusion, have the power to change the world.

“I am living proof of the benefits of unity; my development has been shaped by, and greatly benefited from, being around people of different nationalities, ages and, of course, abilities,” she says. “There is still a lot of work to end discrimination, but both the Games and Year of Tolerance are helping to change attitudes and have given us a voice. I hope the rest of the world follows.”

And if a fascinating poster project is any guide, tolerance is more of a movement than perhaps we dare hope. What started out as a small exhibition in Slovenia with designer Mirko Ilić asking his peers to create posters on the subject of tolerance has now travelled to 22 countries and 48 locations.

“There’s no big organisation behind this, and no money either, so it’s quite amazing how much it’s taken off,” says Ilic of a show that returns to the UAE this month. “I guess each country has their own reason to have a show on tolerance – and if just one person sees a poster and just stops to think for a moment that much more unites us than divides us… then it will have worked.”

Which is, suitably enough, almost exactly what UAE Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan says in his foreword to Reverend Thompson’s book. Celebrating tolerance, he says, “helps us to appreciate the differences that animate our humanity and to identify values that we all share, despite those differences.”

As someone responsible for creating an environment where we most obviously experience both humanity and difference – an airport – Paul Griffiths understands more than most the power of tolerance.

“Elsewhere it’s seemingly about building walls, creating borders, wanting to disconnect,” he says. “But I hope the papal mass and the Year of Tolerance will demonstrate that the UAE can take leadership and move the world agenda forward. This isn’t just a place that revels in the tallest, the biggest, the best, the most expensive. It’s not just about glass and steel. The UAE can, through the Year of Tolerance, make a sophisticated cultural challenge to us all.”

Words: Ben East

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