'Tolerant' UAE recognises non-Muslim places of worship despite ongoing crackdown on dissent
Some 19 religious institutions, including 17 Christian churches and one Sikh Gurudwara will now be regulated by the state's Department of Community Development, receiving assistance from the government in the day-to-day running of the sites.
"Previously, such bodies were not officially recognised by the law. Now, these places of worship will have a point of contact in government to address any issues over their day-to-day operations," Sultan Al Dhaheri, the executive director of community participation and sport at the department, said.
"We have met with their leaders and explained to them the guidelines and we will be holding workshops for them. We have a partnership relationship with them and are working side by side," he added.
"Anyone who has been living here for many years should have the right to practice his religion in a proper way," he stressed.
The new law was announced just months after the UAE hosted the pope in February, marking the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula as part of an effort to boost the Vatican's outreach to Islam.
Amnesty at the time said the papal visit should not be used as an opportunity to mask over human rights violations taking place within the UAE, which this year announced its "Year of Tolerance".
"The UAE authorities are trying to brand 2019 as the 'year of tolerance' and are now seeking to cast the Pope's visit as proof of their respect for diversity. Does this mean they are ready to reverse their policy of systematic repression of any form of dissent or criticism?" said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's Middle East Research Director.
"Since 2011, the authorities have systematically cracked down on their critics, including activists, judges, lawyers, academics, students and journalists by way of arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearance, torture and other-ill-treatment".
In his first public appearance during the tour, the pope called for urgent "respect" for a ceasefire accord in Yemen to allow humanitarian aid through in the conflict-weary country.
"It will take more than symbolic meetings to gloss over the UAE's appalling human rights record. The fanfare around Pope Francis' visit will be missed by the many human rights defenders, including Ahmed Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith and Mohammed al-Roken, who are serving lengthy prison sentences simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. We are calling on Pope Francis to raise the issue of their incarceration with his hosts, and urge their immediate and unconditional release," said Maalouf.
Just a month prior to the visit, the UN's human rights commissioner pulled out of a literary festival in Dubai over the detention of Emirati rights activist Ahmed Mansoor.
"If the Emirati authorities are really serious about reform, they should repeal laws and end practices that perpetuate discrimination, and release all prisoners of conscience," Maalouf added.
Human Rights Watch also urged the pope to speak out against UAE abuses of prisoners and civilians in the bloody Yemen war - which has cost at least 13,000 lives - and domestic rights abuses.
"Despite its assertions about tolerance, the UAE government has demonstrated no real interest in improving its human rights record," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"But the UAE has shown how sensitive it is to its image on the global stage, and Pope Francis should use his visit to press UAE leaders to meet their human rights obligations at home and abroad."
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