By Judith Sudilovsky | OSV News
(OSV News) — A unique multifaith center of worship encompassing a church, a synagogue and a mosque was inaugurated Feb. 16-19 in Abu Dhabi as an affirmation of the principles declared in the Document on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi in February 2019.
Abrahamic Family House (AFH) will be opened to the public March 1. Visitors will be able to come to worship as well as tour the site.
Inspired by the meeting between the two religious leaders, the idea of the center began to take shape in August 2019 when Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahayn, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, allocated a plot of land on Saadiyat Island for construction. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the Gulf nation of United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Named after the patriarch Abraham who is revered by Islam, Christianity and Judaism, the official inauguration of the center began Feb. 16, with opening ceremonies taking place at each house of worship. It ended with the opening of St. Francis Church Feb. 19.
The inauguration of the center was the “realization of a dream and the first fruit of the Document (on) Human Fraternity,” said Msgr. Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, a Catholic Coptic priest who formerly served as second personal secretary to Pope Francis and is a member of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity meant to implement the Abu Dhabi declaration.
“The inauguration means continuing to hope for a better future among believers of different religions,” he told OSV News in an email. “It means acknowledging the courage of the four signatories of the first stone who inaugurated a new page in the relationship between the three religions. It means that the project was conceived and carried forward not to unify the three religions, but to testify that we can and must find in our faith a reason for meeting and not for confrontation, for dialogue and never for rejection, for peace and never for war.”
In addition to the multi denominational church — which though inaugurated as a Catholic church will be open for worship for all Christian denominations — the center includes the Imam el-Tayeb Mosque and the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, the first specifically built synagogue in the Gulf in 100 years.
“It is always necessary to distinguish between faith and politics, between populations and their states,” Msgr. Lahzi Gaid added, referring to the construction of a synagogue in the Muslim-majority region that is in large part in conflict with Israel. “I believe that the Abrahamic Family House will open a new horizon and help everyone learn this distinction. This is obviously one of the challenges that the Abrahamic Family House should face and overcome.”
The church of St. Francis is under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicariate of South Arabia, and one or more priests will be designated to serve the Catholic faithful and to manage the day-to-day operations of the church. Msgr. Lahzi Gaid said he will be tasked with helping the various parties achieve the objectives of the Abrahamic House, namely to “live human fraternity” and apply the principles of the Abu Dhabi Document.
“Fundamentalism is often the result of ignorance. Knowing the other is the best way to stop seeing him as an enemy to annihilate,” he said. “In the Middle East religion, it is considered a fundamental element of daily life and finding in Abraham the figure who unites a difficult and torn environment is the way to recovery.”
He said that seeing the three nearby places of worship leads him to “kneel down to thank the Lord who has guided this path of Human Fraternity which is bearing concrete fruits of coexistence, tolerance, friendship and reconciliation.”
“It was very exciting to see the believers of the three religions together in the same place, each one living his faith in mutual respect,” he said.
The three structures, similar in their cubic design but unique in their details, are meant to represent diverse communities of worshippers while evoking a traditional spirit that is future-looking toward acceptance, inclusion and peace, according to the AFH website.
“They each express themselves differently but share equal external dimensions, with a unifying roof at a shared datum height, ensuring that none of the buildings from the three is more dominant than its counterparts,” the website explains.
A Hindu temple also is scheduled to be opened soon in Abu Dhabi.
Though now a Muslim country, with the Christian community consisting of expats and foreign workers, two pre-Islamic Christian monasteries have been discovered by archaeologists in the UAE in the past two decades, attesting to a historical Christian presence in the area. Jewish expats also live in the UAE, and a Jewish tombstone belonging to “David son of Moses” dating back to the period between 1507-1650 was discovered a few years ago in the area.
The AFH aims to spread knowledge among believers and non-believers, and importance will be given to the education center which will welcome everyone and answer questions especially among young people, Msgr. Lahzi Gaid said.
“We have seen the results of hate. Now we work to show the light of love and respect and dialogue,” he said.
Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee who spoke at the opening conference, said in response to a query from OSV News that the AFH was an “expression of the integrity of each of the three Abrahamic faiths.”
“At the same time the very complex — and hopefully its programs — highlight the shared religio-ethical values of the three religious traditions and their universal message for the welfare of humanity at large,” Rosen stressed.
At the conference, he also noted the synagogue in particular “offers an amazing opportunity to educate the world about the beauty and true values of Jewish tradition … for a people that has suffered and still suffers from prejudice and bigotry born out of ignorance and misrepresentations.”
At the AFH inauguration, the prefect of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, called the center a “beacon of mutual understanding.”
Muhammad Khalifa Al Mubarak, president of the AFH, said the establishment of the Abrahamic Family House was “the legacy of the founding father, the deceased Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, as well as the legacy of the values on which he built our state, his vision of peace, understanding and mutual respect in a country that today embraces more than 200 nationalities from all over the world.”
His hope was that “this building will be a source of hope for future generations and a beacon that unites them forever, in mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.”
Though the UAE has come under attack by human rights activists for anti-democratic and human rights violations, it has at the same time been active in the past years promoting tolerance in the region. Together with Bahrain, it signed the Abraham Accords in September 2020, which worked toward normalization of relations with Israel.