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We spoke to Reverend Andrew Thompson, author of many books including Celebrating Tolerance and Jesus of Arabia, among others. Born in the UK where he studied behavioral sciences and Islamic communities, Thompson then moved to Jordan in 1990 to work with Palestinian youth and later to Dubai as an Anglican Church youth worker. He trained as a Church of England priest in the UK, getting ordained in 2000, later moving back to the Middle East to Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and then to Kuwait in 2006, where he was the chaplain of the local parish of St Paul’s. In the UAE, he has been pastor of St Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi since 2010 and was awarded the MBE in 2011 for services to human rights and promoting interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
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Aside from being a priest, you’re also an author. Have you always wanted to be one? How did this come to be?
I am an accidental author. I had published a couple of very small books about twenty years ago on a hobby of mine (performing magic tricks if you are interested) and that was that. When I was a priest in Kuwait, there was some negative political discourse directed against Christians in the country from an extremist group. In response to this I set out to write a book that would highlight the positive contribution that the Church had made to Kuwaiti society and that introduced me to the fascinating history of the church in Arabia. The writing of the book was an enriching experience and led me to meet a wide array of people whom I would never have met. When the book was published it generated some local interest and just as I was about to get to speak about the book in all sorts of places, we relocated to the United Arab Emirates.
When we arrived in the UAE, I was looking for information about the churches in order to understand my context and was astonished to discover there was very little in print. This became an opportunity to research the story of the Christian community in the country and Motivate Media published my second book Christianity in the UAE. Three years later, Motivate then published my third book Jesus of Arabia which was an attempt to connect Christians and Muslims through the shared culture of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels and the Arabian Gulf.
You’ve written extensively on faith with a focus on Christianity in and for the UAE and wider Arab region, what’s one aspect of your books that always amazes people?
People in the West are amazed to hear that there is a church which is flourishing in the Arabian Gulf and that we enjoy good and positive relations with our host governments. The Middle East is often associated with bad news, intolerance and persecution so it is good to remind readers that the reality is much more nuanced.
Generally, what would you say is your typical writing process?
The hardest thing is to sit behind the computer screen and get typing. Really that is the main difference between a writer and someone else. Once you start tapping away the words then flow. I usually set out a map of the book with an outline of the chapters and the proposed content for each chapter and start from there. The research material is assembled in folders according to the chapter they belong to. I write when I get a slot of time to focus. Sometimes it is only 10 minutes and sometimes it can be a day. There is no preferred time of the day. I write when there is simply time and space to write.
What do you enjoy most about writing? And is it a specific topic that pulls you to the act of writing?
Writing demands focus and consequently I write as a means of relaxation from my job. It means that I can but only pay attention to the task at hand and not think about work concerns. Once I get into the zone of concentration I can lose track of time and place and that is a surprisingly refreshing place to be.
You solidified the nation’s celebration and support of ‘Tolerance’ with your book Celebrating Tolerance: Religious Diversity in the United Arab Emirates. Take us on the journey of developing the book, working with the various groups behind the 9 other faiths and culminating with you publishing it at the start of 2019 in the ‘Year of Tolerance’.
This project was born after a meeting hosted by the US embassy for religious leaders in the UAE. The meeting was convened in response to the appointment of a State Minister of Tolerance – a unique government office – and we as religious leaders were asked to reflect on what this appointment might mean for us as religious communities living in the UAE. The outcome of that meeting was an agreement that the agenda of tolerance was one we were all committed to supporting. Consequently we decided to collaborate on producing a book which would highlight the diversity of religious communities. I was tasked as the coordinator for the project. That was in 2016. It took two years to complete the book. It was a time of building friendships and trust between all the parties involved and it was an incredibly enriching time for me personally as I learned about the different religious traditions.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book was working with the Jewish community who for understandable reasons had a continual dialogue about the wisdom of raising their profile. Since then we have seen the launch of the Abrahamic House Project, several interfaith initiatives in which Jewish Rabbis were prominent, the appointment of the Chief Rabbi to the UAE and the ground-breaking normalization of UAE – Israeli relations - all these points to the measure of progress for the Jewish community.
In the book we learn about the only purpose built Sikh Gurudwara in the entire Middle East and how the oldest non-Muslim place of worship is the Hindu temple in Dubai.
Another feature of Celebrating Tolerance was the presentation of an Islamic theology for pluralism by the esteemed scholar Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah. His work is instrumental in persuading a conservative population in the region that religious tolerance is not rooted in a secular worldview but is in fact a divine and scriptural imperative.
What none of us had anticipated was the book being completed just in time for the Papal visit in 2019 and being launched at the Conference of Human Fraternity – a flagship global interfaith conference which inaugurated the Year of Tolerance.
Where did the spirit of openness, understanding and tolerance emerge from you? Was it from your upbringing perhaps, teachings from your faith, or maybe a story that influenced your thinking?
People who meet me for the first time become aware that I have a speech impediment. This is caused by my hearing impairment which has accompanied me from birth and has definitely shaped me as a person. On the positive side it has given me qualities of perseverance and resilience, on the negative side it has often excluded me – be it from not following a group conversation, through to being sidelined because it was seen as an obstacle.
I know what it is to be excluded and so the values of tolerance and inclusion have become deeply personal to me. My faith as a Christian translates those values into the creed taught by Christ as ‘’Loving God and loving neighbour’’.
The 9/11 event acted as a pivotal moment in which I was challenged to see that part of my role as a priest was to be a bridge builder between Muslims and Christians. This remains a deep conviction and feature of my ministry. The global trend at present is an increase in intolerance, prejudice and hatred leading to the exclusion of others. Religious communities are both contributors to this trend and opponents. I belong to the latter group in pushing back against this trend and calling for other religious leaders to do the same.
What is currently the best source of information for people who are interested in learning about different faiths in the UAE?
Celebrating Tolerance remains unique as a source in which you can learn about several faiths in the UAE under one cover. There are other books which highlight different communities. Surender Singh Kandhari’s book The Temple of my Dreams tells the Sikh story in the UAE through his personal narrative. Christianity in the UAE remains the authoritative source for understanding the story of the churches in the UAE. Other sources include the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance website along with the Ministry of Culture. The Emirati social media influencer, Khalid Al Ameri, has made some widely viewed videos championing religious tolerance in the UAE. For a more empirical perspective, I commend the US State department annual country reports on Human Rights and Religious Freedom.
In your opinion, what is it that keeps people from accepting their differences, especially when it comes to faith and religion?
Ignorance is a key driver of intolerance and the obvious antidote to this is education. In a religious context this means ensuring that priests, imams and rabbis are taught about other faiths as part of their training and that in the process they meet and witness other religious communities in worship. The deployment of the same religious leaders should then result in the pulpit being a source in which tolerant faith is taught and caught by their congregations.
In turn, members of these congregations then feel confident and empowered to build friendships outside of their own community. For example, we have held iftars in our church and that has been a hugely encouraging activity in which we see church members invite Muslim friends into their religious space for a meal. Our agenda is simply to deepen friendships over a meal.
Can you share with us some memorable stories that have stuck with you from your journey from the UK to the UAE?
Gosh, I have so many. They range from experiencing the warm hospitality of an Emirati family who then invited me to pray with them in the Islamic way. I discovered how physically challenging it is to get from prostrating myself in prayer to standing upright. The octogenarian who was leading the family prayers did the move in one go!!
I have travelled the world as part of the UAE’s delegation promoting religious diplomacy and on these journeys met Pope Francis and household names in the world of politics and movies. The Papal Mass in Abu Dhabi was just simply overwhelming. The historical significance of worshipping with 180,000 Christians in the UAE left an emotional impact which resonates to this day.
Part of my work is assisting people in distress and as much as possible I work with the UAE authorities in resolving the predicament of various migrant workers. We have seen the ugly side of human trafficking and met some real characters, both angelic and less than savory. There are many stories which have deeply touched me and there is no time or space to tell them here.
Above all, I cherish the incredibly diverse community which makes up the UAE and boast friends from many different cultures, religions and nationalities.
Tell us about the last book you’ve written.
My last book was Christianity in Oman published by Palgrave Macmillan in New York City (December 2019). For the last six years I have been on the board of an interfaith institute based in Muscat and that has introduced me to the fascinating story of the Islam and Christianity in Oman. Oman is a country which has a distinctive school of Islam called Ibadism and is also a country where Christianity has had a long history which is little known outside of the region.
What were some of your favourite books growing up?
I read voraciously as a child and enjoyed all the usual children’s classics from the Narnia Chronicles, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy through to reading popular fiction writers such as John Grisham and Tom Clancy.
One book that I particularly enjoyed was Watership Down written by Richard Adams. As well as a gripping tale of an enforced migration of a rabbit colony from one place to another, he writes the most beautiful description of English country wildlife.
What advice would you give to a young author or religious historian following in this path here in the UAE?
Firstly, read as much as you can and read critically. Look at how the author is writing as much as what they are writing.
Secondly, write. The worst thing you ever write is still superior to the best thing you never wrote,
Thirdly, write about things that you know about (or have researched well). Play to your strengths.
What are you currently reading or have read recently?
I have just read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard which is the most mind-blowing observation of nature I have ever read. I have also been chuckling my way through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I also recently read Brian McClaren Why did Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammed Cross the Road? An incredibly creative approach to interfaith dialogue.
Do you have another book in the pipeline?
I am currently working on three manuscripts which may or not emerge in time as published books. Not surprisingly, they are all faith related.
What is the best part of your day?
Going to bed at the end of a busy and constructive day.
What’s your favourite quote?
“People don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.” A quote I first heard from my Bishop at the time when I was licensed to my first church. It is a quote to live by whatever sphere of life you occupy.
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Celebrating Tolerance is available here and is priced at AED 145.