Mosque, Synagogue and Church Being Built Together in Abu Dhabi

Tensions are still high in the Middle East, but there is hope: Plans have just been unveiled for a new massive interfaith complex in Abu Dhabi, encompassing a mosque, a church and a synagogue.

The facility, to be known as the Abrahamic Family House, will be located on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates' capital city, right next to the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. Abraham of the Old Testament is considered a holy prophet in all three religions.

Abrahamic Family House
Rendering of the external view of the Abrahamic Family House, now under construction in Abu Dhabi Adjaye Associates

The initiative follows Pope Francis's historic trip to the UAE in February, the first time a pontiff has visited the Arabian peninsula. While there, he met with Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, to discuss interfaith harmony in the Arab world and across the globe. The duo released "A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together," which urged political leaders and influencers to "work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace."

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, commemorated the historic meeting by ordering the construction of a building dedicated to interfaith harmony. "The new landmark will symbolize the state of coexistence and human fraternity experienced by people from various ethnicities, nationalities and beliefs in the UAE," according to statement from the government-run news agency Wam, which praised the center as launching "a new era of rapprochement and amity among the different peoples, communities and religions."

The compound is expected to be completed in 2022. Sheik Mohammed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, ruler of Dubai, have already signed the foundation stone.

On September 20, the initial designs for the complex were presented at an event at the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan. British firm Adjaye Associates won the contract to design the center, which will consist of three large buildings arranged around a central garden, under which will sit a museum and education center.

Abrahamic Family House
A exterior view of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi Adjaye Associates

"We were led towards these powerful plutonic forms with a clear geometry, three cubes sitting on a plinth — though not aligned, they each have different orientations," Sir David Adjaye told designboom. Each of the three buildings share a similar silhouette, but the facades have different architectural design and detailing, communicating the shared origins of the three religions, as well as their cultural and historical differences.

Adjaye, who also designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and the National Museum of African American History in D.C., says he saw the garden, "as a powerful metaphor, this safe space where community, connection and civility combine."

"There has never been a building that has the three faiths in one form," Adjaye told The National. "The design is very contemporary but it is rooted in the histories of all three faiths."

The mosque will be orientated toward Mecca, for example, while the synagogue's bema will face Jerusalem and the church's altar will point east towards the sun. Each will have its own individual street entrance, but the ground will slope up into a podium in the center, allowing visitors in the garden to see into all three.

"I think as Americans we need to use this [event] as an opportunity to hold up a mirror to ourselves: what are we doing about religious tolerance?" Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the recently appointed first chief rabbi of the UAE, told Religion News Service at the New York unveiling. "At the grassroots, yes, it's largely there. But on the national level? I would use this as a mirror. How does this reflect back on me?"

As the UAE modernizes, it has worked to present an image of religious tolerance. Although Sharia law is written into the nation's legal code, the practice of other religions is not penalized. However, apostasy—attempting to convert a Muslim to another religion—is a punishable crime.

Abrahamic Family House church abu dhabi
Interior of the church at the Abrahamic Family House Adjaye Associates

The recent influx of laborers to work on the country's many construction and hospitality projects has rapidly increased religious diversity, with hundreds of thousands of Christians now residing in the majority Muslim nation. The Emirates also has a small Jewish population, numbering a few thousand.

In June, Abu Dhabi International Airport opened their first multi-faith prayer room for passengers of all religions to practice before or after a flight. In 2018, the Jewish community of Dubai opened that city's first synagogue.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sheik Zayed, not Sheik Mohammed, had signed the foundation stone.

Abrahamic Family House church abu dhabi
The design for the synagogue at the Abrahamic Family House. Adjaye Associates
Abrahamic Family House rendering
Architectural rendering of the proposed Abrahamic Family House Adjaye Associates