The first Christian site to ever be discovered in the UAE is now officially open to the public, The National reported.
The 1,400-year-old monastery is located on Sir Bani Yas island, nearly 200km west of Abu Dhabi city. It is believed the building was established by a small community of around 30 Nestorian monks who followed "the church of the east — a branch of Christianity that stretched all the way to China."
It has been informally open for many years, as it was discovered in 1992, but has now been made "more accessible for visitors."
The site has been fully prepared for touristic visits with shelters covering it, information boards added to its corners, and lighting installed all around to allow night tours. New roads were also built close to the area to improve access to it, meaning it's now all ready for people to experience its significant history.
The site's opening ceremony was attended by the UAE's Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, who made an address at the event.
"The Sir Bani Yas church and monastery sheds light on our cultural history, one that we can be proud of. Its existence is proof of the long-standing values of tolerance and acceptance in our lands," he said.
Another statement made at the opening came from Paul Hinder, Catholic bishop of Southern Arabia.
"At the beginning, there must have been remarkable reciprocal tolerance because otherwise it would not have worked. But they had to coexist as there was only a small population," he explained.
Also in attendance was Jim Burgess of the Fellowship church in the UAE and Jeramie Rinne of the Evangelical Community Church in Abu Dhabi.
Speaking about the site's discovery, Burgess said "For a time, two religions coexisted here. What a picture. If only we could find that kind of understanding, communication and respect today."
The monastery is thought to have been occupied for around 150 years and "was a stop-off point for traders and travelers along established routes between east and west."
According to The National, there are several theories about why the church became uninhabited over time. One of them states that with Islam progressing in the region, many Christians either converted to the faith or migrated.
However, the fact that the church existed in the area proves that Islam and Christianity managed to coexist for thousands of years.
Never-before-seen parts of the site include an ancient dormitory that features utensils monks used in their day-to-day life.
Dr. Richard Cuttler, an Abu Dhabi-based archaeologist who has been working at the site for over a year, spoke about the monks who lived at the extraordinary site, saying:
"They burned incense, were solitary and led a life of prayer — it was fairly austere. But even we would recognise them as monks from the robes."
Cuttler explained there was no violent end to the monastery, but the monks who inhabited it slowly started leaving.
"There are letters between the head office in Iraq for the church of the east and they say the [monks] are not adhering to rules. They are taking wives and getting married. There is no evidence for a violent end. They just gradually integrated into local society," he explained.
The UAE is home to tens of churches and other places of worship
Since the UAE is home to expats from around the world, many houses of worship are present in different emirates.
There are 40 churches in the country - up from 25 in 2005. There are two Hindu temples in Dubai - to accommodate the roughly 3.3 million Indians residing in the nation - and one Sikh temple. Construction of Abu Dhabi's first Hindu temple is also currently underway, and is expected to open its doors in 2020.
The monastery site's opening comes at a time when the UAE is serious about promoting co-existence. In 2015, an anti-discrimination law was passed in the Emirates in an effort to prevent any behavior that could potentially spread discrimination within the community.
The UAE is also considered the first country to have a minister of tolerance, a day (Nov. 16) dubbed "International Day for Tolerance," and a year dedicated to it. In December 2018, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed declared 2019 as the Year of Tolerance.