The Abrahamic Family House Advances Religious Tolerance

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

What began with an historic papal visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2019 has culminated in an interfaith complex on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, the Abrahamic Family House. 

Pope Francis’s Apostolic Journey to the United Arab Emirates in February 2019 marked the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. While there, the Holy Father celebrated Mass with approximately 180,000 people, the largest public Christian worship service on the peninsula since Islam gained prominence in the seventh century.

As part of Pope Francis’s aim to cultivate interreligious dialogue and peaceful coexistence, the Holy Father, along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together on February 4, 2019. 

The document invites “all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity to unite and work together so that it may serve as a guide for future generations to advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the great divine grace that makes all human beings brothers and sisters.”

With this historic pledge to promote peace among religions and nations, the Document on Human Fraternity formed the foundation for the new Abrahamic Family House. 

Designed by Sir David Adjaye, a Ghanaian-British architect who is known for designing the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., the Abrahamic Family House is composed of the Saint Francis of Assisi Church, the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, and the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque. 

When describing the design, Adjaye said the church, synagogue, and mosque are constructed as separate buildings to preserve “the unique experience of each of the faiths” while “connecting them all with one device.” A raised garden, where the inside of each house of worship can be seen, serves as a connecting link between the structures.   

The three buildings are shaped as cubes with the same dimensions but are oriented and outfitted in accordance with the building traditions of each of the Abrahamic faiths. The mosque faces Mecca, while the synagogue is oriented toward Jerusalem, and the church faces the east, toward the rising sun. 

The mosque held inaugural prayers on Friday, February 17, the synagogue was dedicated on Sunday, February 19, and a prayer service was held at the church on the same day. (The church will be consecrated at a later date.) Four years after the project was first announced, the Abrahamic Family Complex will officially be open to the public on March 1 for visitors, scholars, and thought leaders from around the world to worship as well as learn about the Abrahamic religions.

Representing Pope Francis at the new Saint Francis of Assisi’s first Sunday prayer service, Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald said that the Holy Father encourages people of faith “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.”

Although the United Arab Emirates prohibits preaching against Islam and proselytizing toward Muslims, it permits freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals.  

As Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said, 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.”

In inviting people to celebrate and learn about the Abrahamic faiths, “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,” he added. 

The opening of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi represents a noteworthy advancement of Pope Francis’s mission to champion peaceful coexistence and religious freedom throughout the world.