Symbol of tolerance, oldest Christian site reopens in Sir Bani Yas

The conservation work now gives access to new areas of the complex, which includes a church and a monastery. For local Muslim authorities, the site is a source of pride and confirms the importance of interfaith dialogue. The site is considered a symbol of tolerance that “favours the relationship between the religions,” said For Vicar of Arabia, in the wake of Pope Francis’s visit.

Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) – The church and monastery complex on Sir Bani Yas Island, the oldest Christian site in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reopened to the public yesterday. The island is just over 200 km south-west of Abu Dhabi.

UAE Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan was present at the official inauguration ceremony. Archaeologists, experts and various local Catholic leaders, including Mgr Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of southern Arabia, were also in attendance.

Thanks to the conservation work, new areas of the complex are now open to the public. Discovered in the early 1990s in the eastern part of the island and dating back to 600/700 AD, the site was off-limits to the public until now.

Flint tools from the Neolithic period and a stone structure from the Bronze Age were also found on the island at around the same time. The area includes the ruins of a monastery, probably Nestorian, home to scores of monks.

“This site received special attention from the UAE’s founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, due to the great significance and value it holds as a historic part of the UAE’s cultural heritage,” said Shaikh Nahayan.

“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 longstanding values of tolerance and acceptance in our lands,” he explained, adding that “This further emphasises the importance of cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration, as the site provides evidence of the UAE’s openness to other cultures.”

The inauguration is one of the many initiatives undertaken for the Year of Tolerance, coming a few months after Pope Francis’s historic visit to the Emirates, in early February, when he and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb signed the document on human Brotherhood for world peace and coexistence.

The Apostolic Vicar of Arabia spoke about the commitment of the UAE to preserve the heritage of other religious other than Islam, considering them an integral part of the national culture.

“Even I didn’t know that a church existed in the UAE centuries back,” he said. “I’m sure people would love to know about it and its past. Such measures open up the minds of people, which is very important, and it favours the relationship between the religions.”

The site was first discovered in 1992. In the following years, some crosses emerged, evidence of the its Christian origin. Eventually, archaeologists found a church, dormitories, a burial ground and a kitchen where the religious lived in peace and cooked the fish they caught.

The monks belonged to Christian communities that existed beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. This community continued to prosper for some time even after the spread of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.

Between 2015 and 2016, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism completed its conservation work of the church as part of a broader plan to manage the whole island.