Tell me if you’ve heard this one before — a priest, a rabbi and an imam all walk into a prayer center. But this time, it’s not a setup to a joke. A new interfaith construction in the Middle East is serving as the home to a church, a synagogue, and a mosque.
Known as The Abrahamic Family House, the complex — located in the United Arab Emirates — has already hosted some prayer and worship services. It will open to the general public in March.
The AFH’s official Website says that, “This landmark will be a place for learning, dialogue, and worship – open to all and a true reflection of the UAE’s belief in tolerance and hospitality. Within each of the houses of worship, visitors will have the opportunity to learn about religious services, listen to holy scripture, and experience sacred rituals. A fourth space—not affiliated with any specific religion—will be an educational center where all people can come together as a single community devoted to mutual understanding and peace.”
The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, announced plans for the Abrahamic Family House in 2019 during the country’s “Year of Tolerance.” Designed by the British-Ghanian architect Sir David Adjaye, the site includes the three houses of worship and a center connecting them for future events.
The site itself stands out as a stark, white-marble place of worship in a capital more known for its oil industry, ongoing arms fair, glass towers and beachfront hotels. The three houses of worship — the St. Francis of Assisi Church, the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue and the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque — stand at triangle points, each a structure of about 30 cubic meters (1,060 cubic feet).
Triangular fountains lay set inside parts of the grounds, providing a bubbling background against the sound of construction taking place elsewhere on an island that is already home to the domed Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum opened under an agreement with France. Behind the site, the massive falcon wings of the under-construction Zayed National Museum rise overhead as workers climbed through its scaffolding on Tuesday.
When building the three worship spaces, the planners made sure to make them the same size. Their interiors, however, are different and reflect the traditional worship space preferred by each faith. The Christian building is arranged as a Catholic church with an altar and east-facing windows, while the Islamic mosque has moveable walls for prayers and disguised storage spaces for worshipers to place their shoes after removing them; the Jewish synagogue has the 10 Commandments inscribed on the walls in Hebrew and has a designated space for the Torah in the front.
Pope Francis called for peace and brotherhood when he visited the UAE in 2019, signing a pledge committing to that call alongside Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb. Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald was at the first prayer service at the AFH’s St Francis of Assisi Church as the Pope’s representative. Catholic News Agency reports:
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,” 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,” Martinelli said.
In addition to serving as a commitment to interfaith tolerance, the AFH also fills a need for the 350 to 500 Jewish families living in the UAE. It is the second of only two synagogues located in the Gulf region, the other being located in Bahrain. Al-Monitor reports:
A Jewish communal organization was established in 2021 in Dubai, to serve Jewish communities across in the Gulf region.
High-profile regional diplomatic leaders such as Houda Nonoo, former Bahraini ambassador to the United States, also attended the opening of the project. “The kingdom of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have always been at the forefront of coexistence in the Gulf Cooperation Council. As a member of Bahrain’s indigenous Jewish community, I appreciate the impact of creating a society based on the value of coexistence,” Nonoo, who is Jewish herself, said in a keynote speech.
The inauguration ceremony also saw the presence of Abu Dhabi-based Rabbi Levi Duchman, the former chief Rabbi of Ireland David Rosen who now serves as the American Jewish Committee’s director for international interreligious affairs, as well as Reverend Johnnie Moore who served twice as the US Commissioner on International Religious Freedom.
Having resided in Abu Dhabi since 2014, Rabbi Levi Duchman has been widely involved in Jewish initiatives throughout the UAE, including the establishment of the country’s first Jewish nursery and its first kosher supermarket.
“When I arrived eight years ago, I always felt the need to build Jewish infrastructure,” Duchman had told Al-Monitor previously in regard to the establishment of the country’s first kosher supermarket. “Now that we have a full kosher supermarket, and a chance for families and tourists to come visit, it is a huge step for normalization and toward living a Jewish life here in the UAE.”
Proselytizing outside Islam is still illegal in the UAE, but The National News published an editorial saying that the site serves as a reminder that the UAE’s territories have a long history of mixing people and faiths, and that, “The Abrahamic Family House and the values it embodies also reflect a nation that doesn’t flinch from the complexity of the modern world.” TNN writes:
The story of the UAE being a shared space goes back centuries. In 2010, the remains of an ancient Christian monastery on Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas Island, believed to have been settled around 600 AD by a community of 30 to 40 monks, were opened to the public.
This was followed by another important find in November last year, when archaeologists discovered the remains of another Christian monastery on Al Sinniyah Island in Umm Al Quwain.
The presence of a Hebrew-language gravestone in Ras Al Khaimah dating back to between 1507 and 1650 also reveals the diverse mix of people and faiths who lived, worked and died in this region.
It is a mix that has become richer over years, and even more so in the 21st century, as the UAE becomes a home from home for more than 200 nationalities. Next year, for example, Abu Dhabi will witness the completion of a major Hindu temple being built on more than five hectares of land gifted to the Indian community in 2015 by Sheikh Mohamed.
The temple, with its hand-carved ornamentation, will join the significant architectural contribution made by the Abrahamic Family House. Designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, the complex’s elegant buildings complement not only the flourishing Cultural District on Saadiyat Island – already home to Louvre Abu Dhabi – but will become a stand-out feature of the capital in their own right.
IMAGE: Model of the Abrahamic Family House complex (WIKIMEDIA/CC by 2.0)