Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Freedom of religion

Freedom of Religion

I have always been rather smug about the fact that the UAE is far more tolerant of other religious groups and belief systems than many of the other Middle Eastern countries.

After all, I have three big churches within a 5 -10 minute walk from my villa. And at each of those venues they have a number of denominations that share their facilities. For example, at the St Andrews Centre about 48 different Christian denominations share the facilities. The same goes for the Evangelical Church Centre, St George’s Orthodox Church and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. So there is plenty of Christian religion to be had in Abu Dhabi.

And it is all approved by the UAE government. In fact, the late Sheikh Zayed provided the land for St Andrews church to be built back in 1966. So the UAE has a long history of freedom of religion.

Or so I thought. Until I read this article on The Gulf News website. In summary, two women were arrested for promoting Christianity and distributing bibles illegally.

I have a Christian-based background. I was baptised Catholic, brought up an Anglican (though went to a Jewish nursery school) and as a teenager, became a Baptist. So needless to say I was horrified.

The country, which I had believed to allow freedom of religion, had arrested women for distributing bibles?

I was all ready to get hot and heavy and uptight, and have a huge rant about this. I decided to do some research. And the first thing I found out was that the UAE constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Hah! And they arrested these women for distributing bibles?

But then I realised I was thinking from a purely Christian perspective. What about the non-Christian religions? Were they equally “un-free”?

Back to my guidebooks and the internet.

First thing I found out was that Moslems are allowed to marry Christians and Jews. The latter surprised me because of the whole Israel/Palestine thing. But they are not supposed to marry Hindus or Buddhists.

Right. Still being negative, I decided to see if Hindus were allowed to have temples in the UAE like the Christians were allowed to have churches. I doubted very much that I could find anything. But I did. There is a large Hindu temple in Dubai.

Okay, so they offered Christians and Hindus a place to worship.

Ah, but what about the Jews? Especially considering that when reporting on the conflict in Israel/Palestine, Jerusalem-based stories are always datelined “Occupied Jerusalem.” My mind said that they were bound to discriminate against Jews. I knew that Israeli citizens are highly unlikely to get visas and expat urban legend told that Jews visa applications are often rejected.

So what did I find? Firstly, a study on internet usage. Internet access is tightly controlled in the UAE. All internet access is via the ISP’s proxy server and access to sites that go against Islamic beliefs are barred – pornography, gambling, internet dating sites, etc etc. And the study said that although the internet is tightly controlled, there is no restriction on sites related to Judaism. It surprised me.

And then I found another article on a Jewish website which said that although formal government relations between the UAE and Israel are unlikely to exist until the Palestine/Israel issue is resolved, progress is being made. The Israeli government was to open an office in Abu Dhabi. It would not have full diplomatic status, but it would provide an avenue for opening dialogue.

And then I found another article, this time from the Khaleej Times, which gives statistics on religious groupings in the UAE. Nearly 60 percent of Dubai residents are Muslims, while Christians accounts for 14.72 per cent of the total population and the remaining 26.12 per cent being followers of other religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. And I imagine the statistics are similar for Abu Dhabi, though probably not for the other smaller emirates.

So now where was I? I had gone in expecting to find evidence that the UAE, much like any other Middle Eastern country, was discriminating against non-Moslems.

But other than the arrest story, I couldn’t find anything. So I read the story again. Trying this time to read it without prejudice. And to research some more.

I read again about the UAE’s constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion. And then I found some more information. And in the article, I found the following paragraph:

“Although varying from emirate to emirate, the degree of religious freedom afforded non-Muslims is greater in the UAE than in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For example, non-Muslims are permitted to worship but not to proselytize. There are several large Christian churches and schools in the UAE, primarily in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.”

I noticed immediately the word “proselytize” and although I knew what it mean, I decided to make sure. So I looked it. According to, it means “To convert (a person) from one belief, doctrine, cause, or faith to another.”

So I stopped to think.

We, as non-Moslems, are clearly guests in the UAE. The UAE offers us the freedom to practice our own religion, but politely requests that we don’t go around trying to convert the Moslems to our belief systems, particularly in public places. In other words, limited freedom.

A reasonable request. But a difficult one for many other belief systems. The bible, for example, says that Jesus instructed his believers to get others to believe in him. So Christians believe that it is part of their duties as Christians to convert others.

A conflict of interest? Perhaps. Particularly if you look at the whole issue of freedom. Is the limited freedom that the UAE offers enough? In the larger Human Rights world view, probably not.

But it is what the UAE offers at the moment.

And so I thought some more. About responsibility. Because what many people forget is that with freedom comes responsibility. We are responsible for how we use our freedom, and to ensure that our freedom doesn’t impact on the freedom of others.

So ultimately, after giving this some thought, my conclusion is as follows. The UAE’s limited freedom is not ideal, but it is far more than other countries offer. And it is the responsibility of the UAE’s guests (which we are) to act within their laws, and to respect the freedom that they have given us.

There are other ways of convincing people to change their belief systems. But disobeying the law is certainly not going to impress many people.

What do you think?

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