February 22, 2023 — Jerusalem, Israel
This piece originally appeared in The Media Line.
The United Arab Emirates has been pioneering interfaith work in the Arab world for almost a decade, and it has been my privilege to have been involved over the years in the different initiatives, in particular the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace and, more recently, the activities of the UAE Ministry of Tolerance.
However, the most dramatic of these initiatives reached an historic milestone last week with the launch of the Abrahamic Family House, an exquisitely beautiful complex of three separate religious buildings – a mosque, a church and a synagogue, connected by a common space, including areas for conferences and exhibitions as well as the administration of the center.
The vision for this complex came from the historic visit of Pope Francis to the Emirates and the signing in 2019 of a Declaration of Human Fraternity between the Pope and Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, the fountainhead of Sunni Muslim learning in the world. Above all, this vision was envisaged and facilitated by UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed, as the embodiment of the worldview and teaching of humanism and interreligious tolerance of his late father and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed.
Located in the midst of the cultural hub of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, embraced by the Louvre on one side and the Guggenheim Museum on the other, this complex housing three separate places of worship alongside one another is designed to be a powerful universal message to honor the separate integrity of each religion, while conveying a spirit of mutual respect and shared religioethical values for the benefit of humanity at large.
Designed by the award-winning architect Sir David Adjaye, there is indeed a striking common architectural theme to all three houses, while at the same time they express their own individuality, especially in their interior design. The bare simplicity of the mosque conveys an aesthetic majesty which is awe-inspiring; the church has a stunningly beautiful abstract interior that seeks to echo the light of St. Peter’s cathedral; and the synagogue, which takes its inspiration from the Tabernacle, has a lovely intimacy that evokes the transcendent at the same time.
This complex is envisioned also as a place of education and edification, introducing the particularities of each religious traditions while at the same time conveying the powerful message of genuine respect for religious diversity. Nevertheless, it is not a museum of religions, but rather a complex of vibrant religious vitality. Respective religious leaders have been appointed for each of the houses of worship in which regular religious services will take place.
That sense of vitality was very much evident at the first service held in the synagogue on Sunday – the day concluding the weekend of the launch. More than 200 Jewish residents of the UAE and visitors squeezed into the synagogue where the ark was opened, prayers recited, concluding with the afternoon mincha service. In the midst of what some might term as typical Jewish chaos, there was nevertheless an exhilarated atmosphere of an extended family celebration, together with a sense of being part of not just a historic project as a whole, but also of Jewish history in the making in the Gulf. Indeed, as one walks about the complex, one sees signs in Arabic, English and Hebrew around the mosque, church and visitors center.
The sense of celebrating history very much permeated the atmosphere at the opening event last Thursday evening. With the light of the setting sun casting a mystical magic on the gathering, the assembly of people of different faiths listened to world religious leaders from the three faiths laud the project and its vision of interfaith harmony, expressing the hope that the vision and the reality of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi would be a source of guidance, inspiration and blessing for the world at large.
The Abrahamic Family House, and the synagogue in particular, is a great gift of Sheikh Mohammed to the Jewish people. Myriads of people from around the world, visiting the UAE and coming to the cultural sites in Abu Dhabi, will visit this complex simply because of its location and beauty. As a result, they will encounter the religious traditions represented here and also learn about Judaism. For a people that has suffered and still suffers from prejudice and bigotry born out of ignorance and misrepresentations, this place offers an amazing opportunity to educate the world about the beauty and true values of Jewish tradition.
Rabbi David Rosen is the Jerusalem-based International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee.