How the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi seeks to encourage interfaith dialogue and promote harmony

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The Abrahamic Family House, designed by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, innovatively recounts the common values of Islam, Christianity and Judaism and builds bridges of understanding between the faiths. (WAM)
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An imam, a priest and a rabbi gather together at a church in the Abrahamic Family House during a tour with Arab News. (AN photo by Peter Harrison)
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Prayer notes are inscribed on the wall inside the Jewish place of worship that is part of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi. (SRPC photo)
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An imam leads a prayer at the Abrahamic Family House, a new centre for learning, dialogue, and the practice of faith located in the Saadiyat Cultural District in Abu Dhabi. (WAM)
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Updated 06 July 2023
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How the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi seeks to encourage interfaith dialogue and promote harmony

  • The facility, which opened its doors to the public in March, allows Muslims, Christians and Jews to get together and share ideas
  • It was established after Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb signed the Document on Human Fraternity

DUBAI: A rabbi, a bishop and an imam walk into a room. It sounds like the start of a good joke. In fact, it represents a historic moment for interfaith relations that was brought about by the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity in February 2019.

Signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb, the document called on followers of the three Abrahamic faiths to create bonds of peace and dialogue. This led to the establishment of the Abrahamic Family House, which opened in Abu Dhabi in March.

Featuring a synagogue, a church and a mosque, each decorated with variations on the same pillars — zigzagged, straight and arched — the house gives each place of worship its own distinctive visual identity, while hinting at their many similarities.




The facility located in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District was inaugurated by religious and UAE officials in February as a place of mutual respect, where worshippers, including the local Jewish minority can feel secure. (WAM photo)

The idea was to provide followers of the three faiths with a single location where they could worship separately on the same site. And thanks to its roof garden, visitors of all faiths are also able to mingle freely and share ideas.

The intimate venue is a new concept for interfaith relations and one that is being closely watched by governments and faith leaders worldwide. If it proves successful, the idea could catch on elsewhere.

It is not the intention of the founders of the facility to in any way merge the three religions. Nevertheless, Mahmoud Nagah, the imam of the house’s Eminence Ahmed El-Tayeb Mosque, said many people were initially confused about its purpose.

“When the Abrahamic Family House was first established and inaugurated there were a lot of misconceptions that were raised, suggesting it was calling for one religion, for the creation of one religion, which is the Abrahamic religion,” Nagah told Arab News.




Imam Mahmoud Nagah being interviewed by Arab News senior online editor Peter Harrison. (AN photo)

It was an idea that became “entrenched in people’s hearts,” he added. However, such misconceptions were quickly corrected, he explained, when people had the chance to visit the house and experience it for themselves.

“When people come to the mosque — I’m speaking about Muslims — they say: ‘It’s a normal mosque like other mosques in the UAE,’” said Nagah.

And the design of the three houses of worship is egalitarian; each is contained within a space of equal size to the others.

“We are here acting totally independently from the church and from the synagogue,” said Nagah. “This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t gather together or engage in interfaith dialogue to search for the points that gather us together, not to divide us.”

Indeed, despite these clearly delineated spaces, the house collectively acts as a symbol of religious tolerance and a place in which all faiths can learn to understand one another in harmony.

“We shouldn’t use religions as something that divides people or that causes people to be in a state of conflict with each other,” said Nagah. At the very least, he said, religious faiths should pull communities together.

“Remove the barriers of ignorance that, from my personal point of view, are considered the strongest enemy for people,” he said. “Ignorance makes people unable to communicate with each other.”

Muslims account for about three-quarters of the UAE’s population, while the various Christian sects make up approximately 10 percent. The remaining 15 percent include a number of other faiths, including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, according to figures published by the Washington Post.

It is worth noting that Emiratis — full citizens of the UAE — make up only 11 percent of the country’s total population.

The country’s constitution guarantees the freedom to worship, as long as doing so does not go against public policy. Islam is the official religion and there are laws in place outlawing blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam.




Vatican official Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, speaking during the launch of the Abrahamic Family House, said the new facility "is a concrete example for people of different religions, cultures, traditions, and beliefs to return to the essential: love of neighbor.” (WAM photo).

Beginning in September 2020, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco normalized relations with Israel when they signed the US-brokered Abraham Accords, thereby opening the door to mutual trade, diplomatic relations and security cooperation. It also cleared the way for people of the Jewish faith to visit and emigrate to the UAE.

There remains a lot of skepticism about the Abraham Accords and their role in the Middle East peace process, especially as Israeli authorities continue to occupy Palestinian territories and support the building of settlements.

But such differences with Israel on political issues have not halted the growth of the UAE’s Jewish population. The Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue at the Abrahamic Family House is the first purpose-built synagogue in the Gulf in almost 100 years and its chief rabbi, Yehuda Sarna, said the Jewish population continues to grow “organically.”

“It grew because people felt safe. They felt that there was a high quality of life. They felt like they could be themselves. That’s the thing that hooked me,” Sarna, who is originally from Canada, told Arab News.

“I’ve been coming here since 2010. What hooked me was the mystery of why Jewish people would pick up and leave countries that they were born in and decide to move here. And it’s because they feel welcome.”




Sir Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, said, “In a world in which differences can separate us, let us say here that our shared values shall exist for the sake of our universal aspirations.” (WAM photo)

Hostility toward Jewish populations remains a very real issue in countries worldwide but not in the UAE, said Sarna.

“There are moments, at different points, when there have been spikes in antisemitic actions around the world,” he said. “What’s interesting is to see that (Jewish) people here, in the UAE, are the ones who are now calling their friends and relatives in other countries to check on them. But here they felt safe.”

The synagogue’s design was chosen by the Jewish community without any outside intervention, he explained.

“There was no point at which anything was imposed, architecturally. This was emblematic of the approach as a whole,” Sarna said.

“There are Jews who were children of Holocaust survivors who have come here. There are people who were imprisoned by the Houthis in Yemen because of their religion. There are people who escaped threats by Saddam Hussein and his regime (in Iraq) who have come here. There are people who ran away just with their siblings from Iran. We’ve come here and now are part of this Jewish community.”




Intention notes are inscribed on the wall inside the Jewish place of worship that is part of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi. (SRPC photo)

Given the initial success of the Abrahamic Family House, Sarna said he can definitely see a bright future for similar projects in other parts of the world, which could help create cohesive bonds between followers of all faiths, despite their differences.

Such differences, Sarna and Nagah agree, must not stand in the way of peaceful coexistence — which is the ultimate aim of the Abrahamic Family House.

Paulo Martinelli shares their view. The vicar of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia and chief pastor of St. Francis Church, he was appointed by Pope Francis to lead Catholic prayer at the Abrahamic Family House. He also leads the Catholic communities in Yemen and Oman. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this combined community in the three countries was 1 million strong, concentrated primarily in the UAE.

“It’s so beautiful to gather together here to celebrate mass, to pray together,” Martinelli told Arab News.

“Also here, of course, is a particularly interesting place because it’s not only a Catholic church but it’s a Catholic church in the Abrahamic Family House, in which we have three different places of worship.




Bishop Paulo Martinelli being interviewed by Arab News senior online editor Peter Harrison. (SRPC photo)

“We (the three faiths) are clearly different but we are also together. So we can share our experiences and show the world that it is possible to work together, even though we are different.”

Martinelli believes there is a huge potential for similar interfaith sites to succeed elsewhere in the world.

“I think it is a great opportunity to have such a place and to show that it’s possible to be different and to be, at the same time, together to share values,” he said.

The Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi opened to the public in March. Since then, a rabbi, a bishop and an imam have regularly been seen walking into the same building. Although they pray in separate spaces, they share a common dream of peaceful religious coexistence.

And such a goal is certainly no joke.

 


Yemen’s Houthis say they will continue sinking British ships

Updated 03 March 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis say they will continue sinking British ships

  • The US military confirmed on Saturday that the UK-owned vessel Rubymar had sunk after being struck by an anti-ship ballistic missile

CAIRO: Yemen’s Houthis vowed on Sunday to continue targeting British ships in the Gulf of Aden following the sinking of UK-owned vessel Rubymar.
The US military confirmed on Saturday that the UK-owned vessel Rubymar had sunk after being struck by an anti-ship ballistic missile fired by Yemeni Houthi militants on Feb. 18.
“Yemen will continue to sink more British ships, and any repercussions or other damages will be added to Britain’s bill,” Hussein Al-Ezzi, deputy foreign minister in the Houthi-led government, said in a post on X.
“It is a rogue state that attacks Yemen and partners with America in sponsoring ongoing crimes against civilians in Gaza.”

Already, many ships have turned away from the route. The sinking could see further detours and higher insurance rates put on vessels plying the waterway — potentially driving up global inflation and affecting aid shipments to the region.

The Belize-flagged Rubymar had been drifting northward after being struck by a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile on Feb. 18 in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a crucial waterway linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The US military’s Central Command previously warned the vessel’s cargo of fertilizer, as well as fuel leaking from the ship, could cause ecological damage to the Red Sea.


Born and died during Gaza war, infant twins are buried in Rafah

Updated 03 March 2024
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Born and died during Gaza war, infant twins are buried in Rafah

  • The twins — a boy and a girl — were among five children killed in the strike on a house in Rafah
  • The members of the Abu Anza family killed in the strike were lined up in black body bags

RAFAH: Born a few weeks into the Gaza war, infant twins Wesam and Naeem Abu Anza were buried on Sunday, the youngest of 14 members of the same family whom Gaza health authorities say were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Rafah overnight.
Their mother, Rania Abu Anza, held one of the twins, its tiny body wrapped in a white shroud, to her cheek and stroked its head during the funeral on Sunday. A mourner held the second baby close by, pale blue pyjamas visible beneath a shroud.
“My heart is gone,” wept Abu Anza, whose husband was also killed, as mourners comforted her. She resisted when asked to release the body of one of the babies ahead of burial. “Leave her with me,” she said, in a low voice.
The twins — a boy and a girl — were among five children killed in the strike on a house in Rafah, according to the health ministry in Gaza. Abu Anza said she had given birth to them — her first children — after 11 years of marriage.
“We were asleep, we were not shooting and we were not fighting. What is their fault? What is their fault, what is her fault?” Abu Anza said.
“How will I continue to live now?“
Relatives said the twins had been born some four months ago, about a month into the war which began on Oct. 7, when Hamas stormed Israel, in an attack that killed 1,200 people and resulted in another 253 being abducted, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel’s offensive has killed more than 30,000 people in the Gaza Strip since then, according to Gaza health authorities, laying waste to the territory and uprooting most of its population.
The members of the Abu Anza family killed in the strike were lined up in black body bags. A man wept over the body of one of the dead, a child wearing pyjamas. “God have mercy on her, God have mercy on her,” said another man, consoling him.
Abu Anza said she had been wishing for a ceasefire before Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month which begins around March 10.
US President Joe Biden has expressed hope one will be agreed by then. “We were preparing for Ramadan, how am I supposed to live my life? How?” she said.


Arab foreign ministers meet in Riyadh to discuss Gaza war

Updated 03 March 2024
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Arab foreign ministers meet in Riyadh to discuss Gaza war

  • Meeting held on the sidelines of GCC ministerial session
  • Foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt and Morocco discuss Gaza

RIYADH: The Gulf Cooperation Council carried its 159th ministerial session in Riyadh on Sunday, while separate meetings were held involving the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

Joint ministerial meeting held on the sidelines between the GCC and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that what is happening in Gaza is a systematic plan to liquidate the Palestinian cause. Adding that "Security solutions to the conflict have brought nothing but destruction to the region, and the escalation in Gaza extended to the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab"

Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General Jasem Mohammed Al-Budaiwi firmly reiterated the collective stance of the GCC nations, denouncing the severe Israeli infringements of international humanitarian law in Gaza, particularly its consistent and direct targeting of civilians. Al-Budaiwi also underscored the immediate need for a ceasefire.

Al-Budaiwi also pointed out GCC rejection of any measure that would affect Egypt’s right to the Nile waters and stressed the necessity to reach an agreement on the Renaissance Dam.


Arab foreign ministers meet in Riyadh to discuss Gaza war

Updated 03 March 2024
Follow

Arab foreign ministers meet in Riyadh to discuss Gaza war

RIYADH: The Gulf Cooperation Council carried its 159th ministerial session in Riyadh on Sunday, while separate meetings were held involving the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

Joint ministerial meeting held on the sidelines between the GCC and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that what is happening in Gaza is a systematic plan to liquidate the Palestinian cause. Adding that "Security solutions to the conflict have brought nothing but destruction to the region, and the escalation in Gaza extended to the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab"

Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General Jasem Mohammed Al-Budaiwi firmly reiterated the collective stance of the GCC nations, denouncing the severe Israeli infringements of international humanitarian law in Gaza, particularly its consistent and direct targeting of civilians. Al-Budaiwi also underscored the immediate need for a ceasefire.

Al-Budaiwi also pointed out GCC rejection of any measure that would affect Egypt’s right to the Nile waters and stressed the necessity to reach an agreement on the Renaissance Dam.

 


Hamas, Qatari, US envoys in Cairo for Gaza talks: state-linked media

Updated 03 March 2024
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Hamas, Qatari, US envoys in Cairo for Gaza talks: state-linked media

  • A Hamas official says a ceasefire in Gaza may be secured if Israel accepts group's demands
  • Meanwhile, the Israeli military intensified operations in Khan Younis

CAIRO: Delegations from Hamas, Qatar and the United States have arrived in Egypt for “a new round of negotiations” toward a truce in the Gaza war, state-linked Al-Qahera News reported Sunday.
Cairo, Doha and Washington have mediated in weeks of talks aiming to pause the fighting in the almost five-months-old war between Israel and Hamas sparked by the October 7 attack.
Their goal has been to secure a truce by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, but hopes have been dampened by a series of failed talks since a one-week pause in November.
A Hamas source on Sunday told AFP its delegation to Cairo is being led by senior leader Khalil Al-Haya.
“The delegation will meet Egyptian mediators and deliver the group’s response to the new Paris proposal,” the source said, in reference to negotiations held last month in the French capital with Israel’s presence.
The United States regards Hamas as a “terrorist” organization, and in previous talks Egyptian officials have functioned as the key conduit between US envoys and Hamas, as well as between Israel and Hamas.
The negotiations have centered on a proposal to pause the fighting for six weeks and for Hamas to free hostages in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, and greater aid deliveries.
The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Gaza militants also abducted 250 hostages, of whom 130 remain in captivity according to Israel, a figure that includes 31 presumed dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive on the besieged Palestinian territory has killed 30,410 people, mostly women and children, the Gaza health ministry reported Sunday.