An ancient Christian monastery has been unearthed on the coast of Al Sinniyah Island near the United Arab Emirates, local officials reported on Thursday.
Archaeologists suggest the monastery, located about 50 kilometers northeast of bustling Dubai, could be 1,400 years old and predate the arrival of Islam to the region. Whenever its origin, the rare find sheds light on early Christianity in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East. Officials believe the monastery was also part of the Umm al-Quwain sheikhdom that formed in 1775.
The monastery’s design suggests that the early Christian prayer services were held in a single-aisle sanctuary. The findings included an oven, reportedly for baking wafers for communion rites, an altar and an installation for communion wine.
Scholars believe that Emirati Christians gradually abandoned their faith and converted to Islam as it swept across the region and established itself as the primary religion of the UAE.
Associate professor of archaeology at the United Arab Emirates University, Timothy Power, who discovered the monastery, said the religious diversity it represents mirrors contemporary UAE society as a “melting pot of nations.”
“The fact that something similar was happening here 1,000 years ago is really remarkable and this is a story that deserves to be told,” Power said. “It is an extremely rare discovery. It is an important reminder of a lost chapter of Arab history.”
Power disagreed with the narrative that the new religion, Islam, violently pushed Christianity away, insisting that Christians and Muslims coexisted peacefully in the area for 300 years.
“The place was slowly abandoned. There was no sign of devastation or violence or burning. There was incremental cultural and social change as Christianity faded out and Islam became dominant. It is a monument to tolerance and multi-faith society,” Power said.
Modern UAE’s rapid economic development has attracted many foreign workers and migrants from Asia, as well as skilled professionals from the West.
While Islam is the UAE’s official religion, the country’s ruling family allows freedom of worship for all religions and its law prohibits religious discrimination and “religious hatred.” Today, Christians constitute approximately 12% of the UAE’s 10 million people, while Jews number about 3,000.
In its annual International Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. State Department said the UAE’s tolerance towards religious minorities is rare in other Middle East countries.
“According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local emirate governments, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged,” the State Department said.
The Christian population declined dramatically in the Middle East over the past century because of discrimination, oppression and emigration. Christians constituted some 20% of the region’s population a few hundred years ago. Today, the Christian minority in the Middle East numbers a mere 5%.
In addition to the UAE, Bahrain is a bright light of religious tolerance in the overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East. In April, an Evangelical international delegation led by ALL ISRAEL NEWS Editor-in-Chief Joel Rosenberg visited Our Lady of Arabia, a newly constructed church and the largest Catholic church in the Arab peninsula.