As the second Catholic church opens in Abu Dhabi, leaders of the United Arab Emirates are being praised for their religious tolerance.
"We thank the rulers for providing an attractive environment where Christians feel accepted and are able to live their own identity and to practice their religious beliefs," Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of Southern Arabia, said at the opening Thursday, according to Vatican Radio.
St. Paul's Church — which opened in Mussaffah, a town southwest of Abu Dhabi — was built on land given by the Abu Dhabi municipality in 2011, and will serve as a house of worship to the approximately 900,000 Catholics in the U.A.E., The National reported.
"The president, Sheikh Khalif, said that 'the (U.A.E.) has relied, and will continue to rely, on the rich and diverse contributions of its true wealth — its people — to guarantee its prosperity.' That is you," said Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the minister of culture, youth and community development. "Our leadership knows its true wealth and accepts the obligation to respect and understand the many religious beliefs of the people living in this country. I believe that each of you can provide evidence that the leaders of the U.A.E. are fulfilling that obligation."
The U.A.E. is also home to a stake center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as a house of worship for the Seventh-day Adventist Church and other faiths.
Despite allowing churches to build houses of worship, the U.A.E. — of which 76 percent of the population is Muslim and 9 percent Christian, according to the CIA World Factbook — has a record of religious intolerance.
A recent study from Pew Research Center ranked the U.A.E. "high" in government restrictions of religion, and "moderate" in social hostilities toward religions.
The report found that the constitution narrowly supports freedom of religious worship but the national government does not generally respect religious freedom.
Article 32 of the constitution states: "Freedom to exercise religious worship is guaranteed in accordance with the generally accepted traditions provided that such freedom is consistent with the public policy or does not violate the public morals."
But faith leaders in the country have a different view. The Rev. Andrew Thompson — the senior pastor at Abu Dhabi's Anglican St. Andrew's Church, which was also gifted land from the ruling family — told Gulf News that it is "in many ways" easier being a Christian in the U.A.E. than in the U.K.
"The government gave the land, they gave us visa-granting rights to bring in pastors and priests. They support us by attending some of our major events," the author of "Christianity in the U.A.E.: Culture and Heritage" said. "The Emirati model of religious freedom is one that should be emulated throughout (the world). The (U.A.E.) … is probably the easiest country I've lived in."