Christmas in the UAE is symbolic of the nation’s religious tolerance

  • Written by:

Across the Middle East, we can find examples of interfaith understanding 
Christmas decorations in The Dubai Mall. Chris Whiteoak / The National
 Tolerance is a hot topic globally as we head into the festive season. In a recent interview with the Big Issue magazine, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby commented on what he described as a dwindling tolerance towards people from other backgrounds and faiths. “I am not saying we are in a crisis,” he said. “I am just saying the direction of travel is not what we want.”

His comments serve as a reminder that we in the UAE have many reasons to count blessings we often take for granted. Last weekend my wife and I were invited to attend a party thrown by a friend for the Abu Dhabi-based diplomatic corps. It had, naturally, a Christmas theme – there was no Santa and no reindeer but plenty of decorations, along with roast turkey. During the evening, there was a surprise visit from a passing Filipino choir, whose members were welcomed in to sing carols.

Another guest, a recently arrived western ambassador, asked me how the ways of marking Christmas in the UAE had evolved over the years. A few days earlier, he said, a visiting minister from his country had been amazed to see a huge Christmas tree in the lobby of a Dubai hotel, with carols broadcast over the hotel’s loudspeaker system.

Over the years , Christmas celebrations have definitely become more publicly visible
This was nothing particularly unusual these days, I told him. It simply reflected the way in which the expression of the UAE’s philosophy of religious tolerance has taken root over the years. Christians who have relocated from overseas have always celebrated Christmas here, both at home and in the churches. Decorations and displays with a Christmassy theme have also become conventional in many of the malls and hotels too, although there is often been a marketing and commercial element to it.

I myself am not a great observer of Christmas celebrations, although I enjoy the special family-orientated spirit at the parties I attend. Over the years that I have been here, Christmas celebrations have definitely become more publicly visible. An authentically local tradition of marking the occasion has gradually emerged, benignly observed by officialdom and the country’s Muslim-majority population, like the annual Carols by Candlelight in the Desert event in Abu Dhabi. Hundreds turned out for it this year. That is right and proper, reflecting the way in which the multicultural, multi-faith UAE displays its tolerance.

That is a feature of life in the Emirates which will, I hope, continue to flourish and grow.

Christmas decorations at the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. Antonie Robertson / The National
Christmas decorations at The Dubai Mall. December 9th, 2019. Chris Whiteoak / The National
If Christmas is a time during which the UAE’s philosophy of tolerance is particularly visible, it is also perhaps a time when all of us who live here should reflect on how fortunate we are to be able to celebrate in this way, should we choose to do so.

Earlier this month Lord David Alton, a leading British Catholic layman, sent me a report on a visit he has just paid to northern Iraq to visit members of the Chaldean Assyrian Christian community.

In the small town of Al Qosh, on the Nineveh plains near Mosul, he was shown the reputed tomb of a minor Jewish prophet, Nahum, housed in an ancient synagogue. Nahum, whose writings appear in the Old Testament of the Bible, is “revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians”, Lord Alton said.

After the departure of Iraq’s indigenous Jewish community following the establishment of Israel, a local Chaldean Assyrian family committed themselves to doing what they could to protect the tomb, although the synagogue itself gradually fell into ruins. A man called Athra Kado, Lord Alton’s guide during his visit, continues today to keep the promise made by his great-uncle some 70 years ago.

Like the tomb in Mosul of another ancient prophet of the Abrahamic faiths, Jonah, Nahum’s tomb would have been destroyed by ISIS if its so-called caliphate had ever extended to Al Qosh.

As Lord Alton noted, ISIS was determined to erase the shared history of the diverse religious communities that lived in Mosul and to replace the concept of different communities living alongside one another by a narrow, unforgiving and cruel ideology.

Fortunately, ISIS never entered Al Qosh and Nahum’s tomb survives. So too does a much cherished, 7th century Chaldean monastery nearby, another example of the ancient religious diversity of this part of Iraq. Today, Chaldean Assyrian craftsmen are working with Czech conservationists and Arch – the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage – to restore both the tomb and the synagogue. The project is due to be completed by May next year.

I’d like to think we have a similar religious understanding and spirit of co-operation here in the UAE.

This year the UAE’s commitment to the principle of religious dialogue and interfaith tolerance and understanding has been made abundantly clear. February’s visit by Pope Francis and the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, the issuing of the Document on Human Fraternity and the announcement of plans for the Abrahamic Family House, bringing together Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have been of enormous significance.

As Christmas approaches and our Year of Tolerance draws towards its close, perhaps the efforts of Athra Kado and his family over decades can offer us an example for the years ahead.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture