When Surender Kandhari first came to Dubai in 1975, there were only a handful of Sikhs in what was then a small fishing village centred around the Creek, The National reports.
The UAE was barely a few years old but tolerance was already an ingrained part of life.
“I never had any problems,” said Mr Kandhari, chairman of the Sikh temple in Dubai. “Everyone who saw me treated me well. We were accepted.”
Today, more than 100,000 Sikhs live in the UAE. The GuruNanak Darbar temple that opened in Jebel Ali Village seven years ago gives free food to anyone who turns up and, on Fridays, tens of thousands pass through its doors.
It is this freedom to live and worship so epitomised by the Sikh story that is the subject of a new book about faiths living together in the UAE.
Celebrating Tolerance: Religious Diversity in the United Arab Emirates is edited by Reverend Andy Thompson, chaplain at St Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi, and launched this week — during Pope Francis’s historic visit to the UAE.
It charts the experiences of ten different faiths, including Hindu, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sikh, Jewish, Baha’i and Christian, who have come to work, live and coexist peacefully. It also examines some of the rituals involved in each faith.
Many came here decades ago and the Christian Armenian community is one. By 1950, as the first oil exploration camps were established in what was then the Trucial States, a handful of Armenians came as engineers, car mechanics and tradesmen to support the burgeoning energy industry.
By the 1970s, this handful had turned into a wave because of Lebanon’s civil war and the Iranian revolution that prompted Armenians leaving these countries for the Emirates. The first Armenian mass took place in 1977, the first church was built in Sharjah in 1996 and the Armenians were officially recognised as a community. Today, Armenians here number in the thousands.
The Jewish community is also profiled in the book. Jews have lived in the UAE for decades and there are now thought to be close to 200 in the UAE.
They come from across the globe and work as teachers, artists, academics and doctors. The community is organic and functions without teachers, rabbis or formal institutions. They live mainly in Dubai, where there is a small synagogue.
“Our community has nothing of the grandness or scale of the old Jewish communities that once lived in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq and Egypt,” members of the community write in the book.
“We have come here as individuals generally not expecting to find other Jews and imagining that our Jewish identities may, by sad necessity, be diminished. To find it here again gives it a fresh and even primal quality.”
The leadership of the Jewish community in the UAE also welcomed the book’s publication, saying it was an important milestone for them. “It is our first opportunity to share the wonderful story of our life in the UAE with a local audience,” it told The National. “Other communities have welcomed, guided and supported us, and offered us their friendship as we have built our flourishing community.”
Thompson is also the author of Jesus of Arabia and Christianity in the UAE, a book that shows the links between Islam and Christianity. He believes the new book confronts stereotypes that the Arabian Gulf is home to just one religion.
“There is a huge diverse, thriving community here and the good news is that they have been quietly living the values of the tolerance and mutual respect for decades,” said Thompson.
“They had come to the UAE as migrant guest workers and although we are all strangers in a strange land, we have each created a spiritual home.
“In the present climate of intolerance in the West and in other parts of the Middle East, the story of the UAE gives us hope.”
The publication of the book is also timely. The UAE is marking the Year of Tolerance and the book was given to Pope Francis during his visit to the UAE this week. An anti-discrimination law — criminalising all forms of prejudice on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin — that came into force in 2015 had also helped improve the spirit of tolerance.
The book has also been endorsed by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance, who has written the foreword.
“That wonderful fact of tolerance deserves the celebration accorded by this splendid book,” he said.
“I daresay that we will learn something new about our own religion as well as much about religions different from our own.
“Without our active attention, tolerance can swiftly vanish. Let the essays in this book inspire tolerance in perpetuity.”