‘A beacon of light’: The Abrahamic Family House opens in Abu Dhabi
A year before UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan signed the historic Abraham Accords on the White House lawn, his government made a breathtaking announcement: In the spirit of the “Year of Tolerance” – declared by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the country’s leader, in conjunction with the joint visit to the UAE by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in February 2019 – Abu Dhabi would undertake construction of a world-class complex dedicated to the pursuit of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, with majestic houses of worship for each of the three Abrahamic faiths.
In a roll-out event at the New York Public Library in September 2019, the award-winning Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Frank Adjaye, designer of the iconic National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, displayed his plans for the identically sized and intricately crafted mosque, church, and synagogue, along with adjoining conference, exhibition, and office space, that would occupy a site on Saadiyat Island across Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Street from the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Witnesses to the presentation – myself included – were awestruck. Unsurprisingly, given the vision of Sheikh Mohammed and the recognized brilliance of Sir David, the plans for what would be named the Abrahamic Family House were stunning in their grandeur, but also in their attention to detail, their clean lines, their balance of common and distinct religious traditions.
When the Pope had come to the UAE – the first papal visit to the Arabian Gulf – he and Sheikh Ahmad had signed “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” an affirmation of shared values and solidarity against extremism, and “an invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among all believers, indeed among believers and non-believers, and among all people of good will.” The document in itself was hailed as historic; the announcement seven months later of its physical realization in a complex of harmoniously arranged houses of worship – including the first synagogue to be built on the Arabian Peninsula in almost a century – was revolutionary.
♦Related: UAE interfaith compound featuring new synagogue set to open Thursday
A little more than three years later, that revolutionary project is completed and will open its doors to the public. Three houses of worship, serving faiths with a common ancestry, will welcome adherents to express their devotion according to their separate hallowed traditions – as well as respectful observers, of whatever spiritual orientation – on a common campus signifying and celebrating the unity of humanity.
When the Abrahamic Family House initiative was first announced, Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the Abu Dhabi official placed in charge of the project, spoke of the message his country’s leadership intended to send – from, and to, a region long viewed as indifferent or hostile to inter-religious harmony. “To have the Abrahamic House in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, showcasing that in this part of the world — where all the news is about hate and darkness, pushing an agenda of division — we are basically planting a beacon of light,” he said.
A great deal of light has been emanating from the Arabian Peninsula in recent years, even as Iranian-armed proxies wage war in Yemen, Qatar-funded Al Jazeera glorifies the murder of Israelis, and human rights progress remains slow and uneven.
The Kingdom of Bahrain, with the peninsula’s only indigenous Jewish community, celebrates religious pluralism, proudly hosts the naval arm of the US Armed Forces Central Command, and one year ago inked the first security agreement of any Gulf Cooperation Council member state with Israel.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has undertaken large-scale reforms in its educational curricula to reverse decades of insular, hardline indoctrination, has charged national institutions to coordinate interfaith dialogue, has allowed overflights by Israeli commercial aircraft, and has shown new openness to economic and political contact with the Jewish state.
In the United Arab Emirates, hardly a week goes by that there isn’t a demonstration of commitment to interfaith harmony – and, of course, of the achievement of tangible benefits from the 2020 normalization with Israel. With some 100 flights a week between Israel and the UAE; bilateral trade projected to grow to $10 billion annually within four years; a first-in-the-region museum in Dubai – the private Crossroads of Civilizations Museum – highlighting Jewish heritage in the Gulf and including a wing devoted to the Holocaust; a fast-growing expatriate Jewish community in Dubai and Abu Dhabi; regular interfaith conferences hosted by the Ministry of Tolerance, the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, and the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, the light of outreach and new possibilities is blazing. Not to be forgotten was the Dubai World Expo, which closed its six-month run last March, and to which Israel was invited even before diplomatic relations had been established.
American Jewish Committee, which has worked with governments and civil society partners throughout the region for three decades to build relationships based on shared objectives and trust, opened an office in Abu Dhabi in 2021, the Sidney Lerner Center for Arab-Jewish Understanding – our own ongoing contribution to a brighter future for all the children of Abraham.
Even as the Islamic Republic of Iran brutally represses its own people, recklessly advances its nuclear program, and sows discord among its neighbors, the opposite shore of the Arabian Gulf finds leaders and institutions dedicated to a different, more inclusive, more peaceful region. Perhaps no entity symbolizes that difference, and that shining ray of hope, as dramatically as the Abrahamic Family House. Its opening, and the contributions it promises, are cause for celebration.