By Houda Nonoo
I hope the world pays as much attention to our interfaith activity as it gives to economics, real estate, and now sports.
On the occasion of the opening of the Abrahamic Family House, the following was my closing keynote address:
Your excellencies, distinguished religious leaders, ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honor to be invited to the inauguration of the Abrahamic Family House and to address you all at this prestigious forum. I am inspired by today’s presentations and panels and excited to see the impact of the Abrahamic Family House in the UAE and more broadly, in our region.
The Kingdom of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have always been at the forefront of coexistence in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As a member of Bahrain’s indigenous Jewish community, I appreciate the impact of creating a society based on the value of coexistence. It is what has allowed my family and our community to be part of the fabric of Bahraini society. A society based on respecting and celebrating each other’s religions and beliefs benefit us all. While many societies talk about being focused on this core value, our leaderships and countries do not just talk the talk, they walk the walk. His Majesty King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa’s sincere belief that religious freedom is the key to not only peaceful coexistence, but to a harmonious and prosperous society where the “one family” spirit prevails is something that we all rally around in Bahrain.
It is something equally important to the UAE leadership. The late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan shared, “The most valuable advice for my children is to keep away from arrogance. I believe that great and strong people cannot be degraded or weakened by treating people with modesty and tolerance. Tolerance among humans begets mercy. One should be merciful and peaceful towards his fellow human brothers.” Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates said, “The UAE is a unique model that unites hearts and minds through its approach based on openness, tolerance and coexistence.” He added, “Through its policies and regional module, the UAE sends positive messages about the necessity of tolerance, co-existence, and joint development work to face many challenges that we encounter as part of the international community.”
The Abrahamic Family House perfectly embodies his words. A campus built so that Muslims, Christians, and Jews can pray in houses of worship next to each other and learn about one another’s religions. By learning and educating ourselves, we will help propel our region forward. Coexistence and tolerance are the greatest gifts we can give our children. By inculcating this value within them, they will grow up only knowing harmony.
Within a square kilometer in Manama, we have houses of worship for all religions, and it encourages interfaith dialogue and celebration. When I give tours of our synagogue to Jewish delegations that visit from all around the world, I also walk them to the Hindu temple nearby and a mosque and church close by. It leads to conversations about how there is more that unites us than some may have initially thought.
Growing up in Bahrain, everyone knew we were Jewish. I went to a Catholic school and was taught by nuns. My friends were of different religions and backgrounds, and we grew up respecting each other’s differences. I never felt the need to hide my religion. We celebrated our major holidays together such as Ramadan, Hanukkah, Diwali and Christmas.
I remember when it was announced that the Abrahamic Family House would be built, the excitement in the country and the region was palpable. Whereas we had houses of worship for all religions within a square kilometer in Bahrain, our friends in the UAE would all pray in one complex.
As a member of the Jewish community of the Gulf, I am particularly excited to see another synagogue being built. There is something very special about a synagogue and church being built in a Muslim country and it sends a very strong message to other countries where people live in fear of being attacked for their religious beliefs.
In many Western countries, antisemitism and Islamophobia are at an all-time high. Yet, in our countries, we are not only ensuring their safety but encouraging their practice by building houses of worship for them to use. What a powerful message to the rest of the world and I hope that, someday soon, all people of faith will be equally comfortable and supported in the countries where they reside. In a world where people are being attacked for their religious beliefs, the UAE — and our region more broadly — are a beacon of light.
Our region is often the focus of media attention when it comes to economics, real estate, and most recently, sports, but I hope that the international community will equally highlight and pay attention to all ofthe interfaith activity that has been going on in recent decades.
In the early 2000s, it started with the launch of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, and today, nearly all of the GCC countries have made significant investments in interfaith programming and education. My hope is that it inspires others to bring this opportunity to their societies because ultimately, we all benefit from a more tolerant world and society.
So, after this fantastic forum, where do we go from here — as individuals and as a community?
How do we wake up tomorrow equally as energized as we are today to keep the momentum going?
I believe that the key is commitment and intention. Let’s commit to today being the impetus for each of us to set a goal of learning about each other’s religions and cultures by participating in events and programs here in the Abrahamic Family House.
Let us commit to bringing someone with us to these events — be it a family member, friend or colleague, as that will help us spread the message of inclusivity.
Let us commit to reaching out to our neighbors and inviting them to events within our community – be it a bar mitzvah, iftar meal, or Christmas celebration.
Let us commit to teaching our children that coexistence is integral to our success as people of this region and of the world.
As we sit here today talking about coexistence and inclusivity, I cannot help but think how much this day would mean for the late and great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks — may his memory be a blessing. Shortly before he passed, Rabbi Sacks spoke on pre-Sabbath Zoom held by the Jewish community of the Emirates. He was a champion for interfaith dialogue and activities and would have loved to be sitting here today. Rabbi Sacks once said, “God has given us many faiths but only one world in which to co-exist. May your work help all of us to cherish our commonalities and feel enlarged by our differences.”
In the spirit of Rabbi Sacks’s comment and my hope for today being the impetus for us to each recommit to interfaith dialogue and activity, I would like to encourage you all to visit the Moses Ben MaimonSynagogue, right here at the Abrahamic Family House, for a kiddush after Sabbath morning services or for a lifecycle event, such as a bar mitzvah. In turn, I look forward to joining you at your houses of worship here in the complex. I will bring family members and friends, and hope you do the same.
Houda Nonoo served as Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-2013. She is the first Jew to be appointed an ambassador of Bahrain.