MULTIFAITH SHRINE

A mosque, a church and a synagogue open side-by-side

Sitting beside the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Abrahamic Family House aims to become a central meeting point for religious dialogue in the Middle East

ABRAHAMIC FAMILY HOUSE

ABRAHAMIC FAMILY HOUSE

Worshippers at Sunday's inaugural service of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in Abu Dhabi

The white-stoned mosque, church and synagogue anchoring the Abrahamic Family House, a monumental interfaith compound that was unveiled last week in the United Arab Emirates, will serve as a busy forum for promoting religious cooperation in the Middle East, its founders said.

The individual structures that make up the new complex, which was designed by the acclaimed Ghanian-British architect, Sir David Adjaye, are linked by a central exhibition space, public garden and conference center that will open to visitors on March 1. The project was inaugurated last Thursday in a twilight ceremony in the capital city of Abu Dhabi led by members of the UAE’s royal court and leaders of the three faiths.

“This will be a great convergence point for the world,” Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the chief rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates, said in a webcast address from the new synagogue’s podium on Friday. “It’s the kind of place where great religious leaders and great cultural leaders will come to be inspired,” he told members of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities over Zoom.

Built in the new cultural district on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island across from the dome-covered Emirati branch of the Louvre museum, the prayer compound is visually striking: Its three cube structures are built with identical dimensions of 30 meters in height, width and depth, while distinguished by iconic design elements referring to each religion. Visible in the desert landscape from the island’s main road and lit up at night are giant posts beside each building that carry the symbols of a crescent, a cross and a menorah. Adjaye previously built the award-winning National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The UAE president, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, hailed the opening in a tweet, declaring the country’s strengthening commitment to religious tolerance. While the UAE is a Muslim nation, its expatriate workers, who make up almost 90% of the population, come from 200 nations and a broad range of faiths. Christian communities have long worshipped at churches in the country, but the synagogue is the first Jewish house of prayer built in the UAE.

“As the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi is inaugurated, we remain committed to harnessing the power of mutual respect, understanding and diversity to achieve shared progress,” the Emirati president wrote on Twitter.

The multifaith project was an outgrowth of Pope Francis’ 2019 trip to the UAE, where he held a mass for more than 100,000 in Abu Dhabi. It was at that time that the government publicly encouraged development of the country’s small Jewish population. The trip preceded the 2020 Abraham Accords, in which the UAE and Bahrain took the groundbreaking step of normalizing relations with Israel.

In the new prayer compound, the church is named for Pope Francis and the synagogue bears the name of Moses Ben Maimon, the 12th-century Spanish Jewish philosopher and doctor who spent much of his life in Morocco and Egypt. He is also known as Maimonides and the Rambam. The mosque is named for Sheikh Ahmed El Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque and University, who is considered the highest authority in Sunni Islamic law. It was during the pope’s visit that he and Sheikh El Tayeb signed a joint declaration titled, the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”

Costs for building the Abrahamic Family House, which were not disclosed but reached about $500 million by some estimates, were paid by the UAE. The government is also building a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, which is scheduled to open in 2024.

At last week’s ceremony, representatives of the three faiths who were central to the project expressed hope that the Abrahamic Family House would play an important role in the region.

“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,” said Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. “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.”

Mohammed Al Mahrasawi, co-chair of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity, which was established during the papal visit, and former president of Al-Azhar University, hailed the project as “a model of coexistence, reconciliation and mutual respect for the sake of mankind.” Sir Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the U.K.’s United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, said that “in a world in which differences can separate us, let us say here that our shared values shall exist for the sake of our universal aspirations.”

Mirvis came from London for the event and was given the honor, alongside Sarna, of affixing the traditional Jewish mezuzah to the entrance of the synagogue. Also joining the ceremony were Rabbi Ben de Toledo and his wife, Yael, who will live in an apartment next to the synagogue to conduct services and lead cultural programs.

Representing the UAE at the event were Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the minister of tolerance and coexistence; Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy prime minister and minister of the interior; and Minister of State Noura Al Kaabi.

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, president of the Abrahamic Family House, opened Thursday’s ceremony with an extended moment of silence for those killed in the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria before welcoming the several hundred guests who gathered for the historic occasion. “We hope that the Abrahamic Family House will inspire youth everywhere, as we highlight our common humanity and work towards the creation of a more peaceful world for generations to come,” Al Mubarak said.

Also speaking Thursday was Houda Nonoo, a leader of the Jewish community in Bahrain and former ambassador to the United States, who said the fact that a synagogue and church were being built in a Muslim country sends a strong message.

“In many Western countries, antisemitism and Islamophobia are at an all-time high,” Nonoo said. “Yet, in our countries, we are not only ensuring their safety but encouraging their practice by building houses of worship for them to use.”

While religious services for Muslims, Christians and Jews will take place in the three separate houses of worship, the project’s developers plan to keep the central forum busy with conferences and ceremonies promoting interfaith dialogue. It will have a “visitor experience center” with exhibitions and tours introducing visitors to the principles of the three faiths. Plans call for a continuing series of educational and faith-based events, along with programs for young people that promote interfaith understanding.

At the inaugural Abrahamic House Forum on Friday, Sheikh Nahyan said that the site would be a home for dialogue in the face of “seemingly intolerable societal problems” that plague the world.

“We recognize that the only strategy that will reduce and eventually eliminate conflict emerging from religious or cultural differences is direct action to find common ground among people of all nations,” Nahyan said.

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