x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Violent intolerance is foreign to region

Until the last century, Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed in this region, with certain exceptions, in peace.

The history of the world's three largest monotheistic faiths is intimately tied to the history of the region where they were born, the Middle East. Until the last century, Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed in this region, with certain exceptions, in peace.

Now, violence between religious groups and against religious minorities risks destroying the region's deeper tradition of tolerance. The killing of 52 worshippers inside a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad this week is just the latest tragedy.

Religious affiliation and political allegiances had largely been kept separate in the Middle East - in many ways, the region has been a model of tolerant coexistence. There have been factors aggravating divisions in recent decades, but the emergence of Israel, a country increasingly defined by a specific religious identity, has done much to encourage the trend. This does not absolve other countries of their responsibilities, but it has had adverse consequences for everyone in the region.

Those who lived in Palestine when it was part of the Ottoman Empire had rights to property regardless of their faith. But today, that right for the majority of Muslims and Christian Arabs in Israel is far from guaranteed. That is why so many non-Jews, even those who have not been forced to, have left Israel since 1948.

But the contagion of sectarianism has spread beyond Israel. Egypt's Coptic minority has been under increasing strain. While sectarian divisions are built into Lebanon's political system, they appear to present more risk to the country now than at any time since the civil war ended in 1990. The Iraq war has left a vacuum filled by sectarian influences, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. And in Iran, members of the Baha'i community have had their lands confiscated and many of their religious leaders have been imprisoned.

The region should not be defined by this recent history - it has a far different past and can have a different future. The UAE's present helps to make this clear. The peaceful co-existence of different faiths in this country points to another way.

Respecting the faiths of others does not mean diminishing our own. Far from it - the way in which this Muslim nation allows the practice of many different sacred traditions testifies to the strength and maturity of its Islamic identity and character. Our religious traditions should help us to affirm the dignity of all, including those who have a different faith from our own.