Catholic Leaders Open New Church in UAE’s Interfaith Abrahamic Family House
St. Francis of Assisi Church, a synagogue and a mosque make up the new interfaith Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi.
The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — now share a common place to worship in the predominantly Muslim United Arab Emirates with the opening of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi.
Such was the dream of Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, who in 2019 signed a historic pledge calling for peace and brotherhood between religions and nations. Four years later. a synagogue, church and mosque sit opposite a secular visitor pavilion in an interfaith complex meant to encourage goodwill and understanding.
Representing the Pope for the first prayer service at the new St. Francis of Assisi Church was Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, a past president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
“The place of prayer should also be a place of joy, and I hope that this will be true for all of us here present,” Cardinal Fitzgerald said at the Sunday prayer service at the new church.
Cardinal Fitzgerald conveyed the Pope’s greetings. He said Pope Francis would encourage all those gathered “to continue in the culture of dialogue as our path; to adopt mutual cooperation as our code of conduct; and to endeavor to make reciprocal understanding the constant method of our undertakings.”
Bishop Paolo Martinelli, the apostolic vicar of Southern Arabia, spoke at the prayer service and reflected on the meaning of the document “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” also known as the Abu Dhabi declaration, which was signed by the Pope and Sunni Islam’s highest legal authority.
“We have entered a new phase in the history of religions,” Bishop Martinelli said. “With the Abu Dhabi document on human fraternity, a prophetic and far-sighted document, religions are presented in their original capacity to collaborate and contribute together to the formation of a more humane world, in which we all recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters, called to fraternity, to coexistence and tolerance, mutual acceptance, and the promotion of justice and peace.”
He characterized the church as a gift to Pope Francis, and he described its namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, as “the saint of universal brotherhood, peace, and reconciliation, and the saint of the custody of creation.”
“His Holiness Pope Francis wanted to take the name of this great saint precisely to recall the value of fraternity, peace and creation and to show the priority of closeness between human beings, especially for those who are in poverty and in need,” Bishop Martinelli said.
The Abrahamic Family House was designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, whose works include the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The three places of worship are in separate buildings intentionally built at the same height and at the same external dimensions. Each building is cube-shaped, with each side 30 meters, about 98.4 feet, in length.
Following each religion’s building traditions, the mosque is oriented toward Mecca, the synagogue is oriented toward Jerusalem, and the church is oriented to the east, the direction of the rising sun.
The complex’s Ahmed Al-Tayeb Mosque, which held inaugural Friday prayers on Feb. 17, is named for the current grand imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and University.
The Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue is named for the medieval Jewish philosopher also known as Maimonides. A Jewish congregation dedicated that worship space earlier on Sunday.
The complex has a welcome center that was inaugurated on Feb. 16. The welcome center aims to offer programs hosting scholars and thought leaders from around the world. It aims to help visitors explore and understand the Abrahamic faiths and to provide a space for religious communities from the UAE and around the world to practice their faiths.
“Our vision is for people to come together in peace, diverse in our faiths, yet common in our humanity,” the Abrahamic Family House said on its website. “Our mission is to bridge our common humanity through the exchange of knowledge, dialogue, and the practice of faith. Our values are peaceful coexistence, curiosity, and the centrality of human fraternity.”
The St. Francis of Assisi Church will be officially consecrated at a later date, allowing the Catholic sacraments to be celebrated there.
At Sunday’s prayer service, Cardinal Fitzgerald reflected on a reading from the Book of Isaiah (59:7) about God’s house of prayer.
“You will have noticed that the prophet says it is to be ‘a house of prayer for all the peoples,’ and I am sure that this will be so, for Christian worship takes us out of ourselves,” the cardinal said. “Worship first leads us to praise God, who is worthy of all praise, and to thank the God of bounty who has given us so many gifts. But worship opens us up to others, instilling in us ‘a care for justice,’ encouraging us to act with integrity.
“We cannot truly pray to God without remembering the other members of the Abrahamic family, and indeed of the human family,” the cardinal said.
Bishop Martinelli added: “May prayers of peace, reconciliation and benevolence always rise to heaven from this place of worship … May the memory of Christ Jesus, whom we consider the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, Son of the Most High and Redeemer of the world, be a blessing for all. May the Gospel be the source of commitment to peace and justice and contribute to the progress of people and the joy of all.”
Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, a Coptic Catholic priest who is a member of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, delivered a welcome to attendees. Others present included Bishop Paul Hinder, the apostolic vicar emeritus of Southern Arabia, and Msgr. Kryspin Dubiel, the charge d’affaires of the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to the UAE.
Cardinal Fizgerald cited St. Paul’s call to remember in prayer the political authorities and others who are responsible for societal well-being.
“I think it is only right to thank God for the leaders of this country who have welcomed the building of this Abrahamic Family House and who have welcomed us all here,” he said. “It is not easy for political leaders in our times, when we see so much violence and conflict. We pray that they may continue to lead us on the path of reconciliation, justice and peace.”
He also cited the prayer service’s reading from the Gospel, the Canticle of Zechariah, a blessing on the infant John the Baptist.
“What he wants is for us all to be able to serve the Lord ‘in holiness and virtue in his presence, all our days,’” the cardinal said. “The opening of the Abrahamic Family House is naturally not just for us who are present today. This space is also for those who will come after us, for all time. As we give thanks to God for its inauguration, let us pray also that it may continue to serve all peoples, promoting justice, reconciliation and peace.”
Commenting on the Abrahamic Family House’s opening, UAE President Sheikh Mohamed said that the country has “a proud history of people from diverse communities working together to create new possibilities.”
“[W]e remain committed to harnessing the power of mutual respect, understanding, and diversity to achieve shared progress,” he said on Twitter Feb. 16.
Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, was present at the complex’s Feb. 16 inauguration. According to Emirates News Agency, the cardinal said the Abrahamic Family House is “a concrete example for people of different religions, cultures, traditions, and beliefs to return to the essential: love of neighbor.”
“This will be a place which promotes dialogue and mutual respect, and acts in the service of human fraternity as we walk the paths of peace together,” the cardinal said.
Though the UAE government has worked to promote the country as an example of religious coexistence, it has drawn criticism for its human-rights record, its treatment of migrants, and even its control of other Muslims.
In a December 2022 report, “Tolerance, Religious Freedom, and Authoritarianism,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the UAE represents “the archetype of an authoritarian state that has invested heavily in a range of initiatives and projects dedicated to RTP (religious tolerance promotion) as an effective element of wider state branding and international diplomacy.”
It is “routinely praised for its welcoming attitude to expatriates from religious minority communities” and it plans to build a Hindu temple, the report said. However, domestic critics of the government are routinely arrested. The U.S. State Department reports that imams in the emirates are “closely surveilled” and texts for Friday sermons are “closely controlled.”
Islam is the official religion of the UAE, and its constitution grants religious freedom insofar as it accords with custom and does not conflict with public policy and public morals, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2021 report on international religious freedom. UAE law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion. Preaching against Islam or proselytizing Muslims, however, can be punished by up to five years’ imprisonment.