I write this letter first and foremost to commend you, your fellow sheikhs, and the people of the United Arab Emirates on declaring 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. From the moment your father, the widely respected Sheikh Zayed, led his nation to independence and admittance into the United Nations in December of 1971, the UAE has endeavored to chart a path of social, religious and political moderation, as well as economic innovation, growth and progress. The results to date have been impressive.
Recently, however, you have taken even more dramatic and courageous steps. You have sought to demonstrate in both symbolic and practical ways that Muslims, Christians and Jews can live together in peace and mutual respect for one another, even while holding different (and deeply held) theological and political views on a range of significant issues.
This week you made history by welcoming His Holiness Pope Francis to the UAE, the first papal visit to a Sunni Arab Gulf country in the 14 centuries since the establishment of Islam.
You rolled out the red carpet for him, embraced him on live national television, and met privately with him to discuss matters of mutual importance. You also gave him a beautiful gift, the deed to the first Catholic church ever built in the UAE, back in 1962.
You arranged special meetings between the pope and Emirati Muslim scholars and clerics, as well as with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, the foremost institution of higher learning for Sunni Muslim scholars in the world.
You organized and hosted a two-day conference on how to advance peaceful coexistence that included Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders.
At that event, the pope and grand imam became recipients of the first Human Fraternity Award, because of their outspoken efforts to oppose religious violence and extremism and promote tolerance and cooperation between peoples of different faiths, and no faith.
“Continue to embrace your brothers the Christian citizens everywhere, for they are our partners in our nation,” the grand imam urged Muslims during his televised speech in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.
Then he addressed the UAE’s Christian community, saying, “You are part of this nation. You are citizens, you are not a minority. You are citizens with full rights and responsibilities.”
Coming just weeks after the grand imam joined with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II to dedicate the Nativity of the Christ Cathedral in Egypt’s new administrative capital – the largest church ever built in the Middle East – such remarks made headlines throughout the region, including on the front pages of newspapers in Saudi Arabia, where no churches have yet been built.
If this were not enough, you and your colleagues then not only permitted but encouraged the pope to hold a morning mass in the largest stadium in your country. Upward of 150,000 Catholics attended, making this the largest Christian worship service ever held on the Arabian Peninsula.
Inviting the leader of Roman Catholicism was a powerful way to mark this Year of Tolerance. Yet you have done more.
Several months ago, you graciously invited me, a dual US-Israeli citizen, to bring the first-ever delegation of Evangelical Christian leaders to visit the UAE. Our meetings with you, your minister of tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, and a range of other senior government and religious leaders were illuminating.
We were deeply encouraged, for example, to learn that you and your government happily permit more than 700 Christian church congregations to meet and operate openly and safely in the UAE, and that nearly one million followers of Jesus live in the UAE, approximately 10% of the population. We were also encouraged that there is a small but thriving Jewish community in your country that, because of your leadership, is feeling increasingly comfortable to come out of the shadows.
CLEARLY, YOUR Year of Tolerance is off to an impressive start. I am writing now to invite you to go even further.
Would you come and visit the holy city of Jerusalem this year, and bring a delegation of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders with you?
I am not writing in an official capacity. As you know, because we discussed this when we met, I work neither for the government of the United States nor for Israel. I do not work for any political leader, nor am I writing on behalf of any officials in either country, or any country. I write to you simply as a Jew, an Evangelical, and a resident of Jerusalem.
Come visit al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, locations of tremendous importance to your faith.
Come visit the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, locations that hold such tremendous importance to our faith.
Come, as well, to walk where Jesus – revered by us both – walked, from the Mount of Olives and the shores of the Sea of Galilee, to Bethlehem and Nazareth, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb.
Come meet with Israeli and Palestinian government, business, civic and religious leaders. Come meet with Israeli and Palestinian young people. Share with us your much needed message of peace, mutual respect and tolerance. Share with us lessons you have learned from your father, and lessons you are teaching your children.
I have every reason to believe you would be welcomed warmly by the people of both sides. Indeed, I pray that God would use your visit to help bring a fresh breeze of healing and hope to a land much in need of both.
The writer is a New York Times best-selling author and dual US-Israeli citizen.