The United Arab Emirates, home to hundreds of cultures and nationalities, is a global role model for acceptance, harmonious coexistence, and religious tolerance.
“Tolerance is a key value of our ancestors and our founding fathers,” said Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, as he launched the National Tolerance Programme last year.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance, said the program is based on seven main pillars: Islam, UAE Constitution, Sheikh Zayed's Legacy and Ethics of the UAE, International Conventions, Archaeology and History, Humanity, and Common Values.
The UAE's tolerance is materialized by its 40 churches - up from 25 churches in 2005 - two Hindu temples, and Sikh temple.
According to Pew, a US-based fact-tank, the UAE’s Christian population currently stands at 13 percent, with this number increasing with continuous immigration. The majority are foreigners working in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
"HH Sheikh Zayed bin Mubarak Al Nahyan very generously granted land for Christians to build churches and we continue to enjoy the same hospitality through his sons. As a Christian, I feel privileged and appreciate the freedom I have in practising my faith," said Reverend Andrew from St Andrew's Church in Abu Dhabi.
"On average, we welcome around 16,000 to 18,000 churchgoers per week. St Andrew's Church has three services per week in English. We also have services in Afrikaans, Amharic, Aramaic, Mandarin, German, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Indonesian, Korean, Nepalese, Yoruba, Sinhalese, Tagalog, and Urdu," continued Rev'd Andrew.
Modern healthcare too came to the UAE with the arrival of American Christian missionary Dr. Pat Kennedy and his wife, Marian.
In Al Ain, the couple opened the Oasis Hospital in 1964, and many members of the UAE's royal family were born there, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Sheikh Saif bin Zayed.
Christians in the UAE belong to all denominations, from Catholic to Baptist to Anglican and Coptic. Because of the UAE’s crowd diversity, there is a church for nearly every branch of Christianity.
Christians are allowed to openly celebrate Christmas and Easter without fear of persecution from the authorities.
According to Bishop Paul Hinder, vicar apostolic of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vicariate of Southern Arabia, the support for the Christian community comes straight from the top.
The rulers of the Emirates donate free land to most churches and waive the costs of water and electricity.
“The leadership are realistic enough to see that with the growing number of foreigners they have to welcome them as Christians, and there is true religious tolerance,” said Hinder.
“During the 10+ years I’ve lived here, I’ve met Emiratis who are amazingly open about the freedom to worship,” Hinder added.
Members of the royal families also often attend inaugurations of new churches, even though the 40 churches in the UAE are a modest number compared with the country’s 5,000+ mosques.
Among other states in the Arabian Gulf, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, Christianity makes up around 14 percent of the total population. In Oman, it's around 6 percent.
Even in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, Christians add up to 4 percent of the total population when migrants are counted.
Jubail Church, described as one of the world's oldest "standing" churches, is located in Saudi Arabia. It's thought to date back to the 4th century. The ruin is partially excavated and currently protected by the Saudi Department of Antiquities.