Dubai: The United Arab Emirates has branded a bridge, a new ministry, a family day at the park and even the entire year of 2019 under the banner theme of "tolerance," an elaborate effort that's in overdrive as the country prepares to host Pope Francis starting Sunday in the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula.
The state's tolerance-themed project, however, has hard limits. While allowing churches and other places of worship to exist and marking holidays like Christmas, the Hindu Diwali and Chinese New Year with festivals and celebrations, the government has simultaneously stomped out critical political expression in the name of national security.
Human rights activists and Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers have been imprisoned, academic research deemed sensitive has been curtailed and human rights groups have been barred entry. Political parties are banned and local media are censored.
And while the law prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees the freedom to exercise religious worship, the state's official religion of Islam is tightly monitored and controlled.
The UAE's Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, said the government is simply doing what "we think is right for our people and for the world."
"We are trying to protect our religion," he told The Associated Press in an interview last week. "We want to restore our real religion, which stems from our holy book the Quran, which believes in living together. It believes in the dignity of a human being."
The UAE, a federation of seven constituent monarchies led by President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is known for its gleaming cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Modern skylines draw tourists from around the world, bars exist next to mosques, men and women dressed in traditional garb brush past foreigners, and tight security and surveillance ensures high levels of safety.
Government bodies, public relations firms and even banks have been busy promoting the state's version of tolerance in preparation for the pope's visit, which includes a meeting on Monday with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's foremost religious institution, and a mass on Tuesday before 135,000 people in Abu Dhabi.
In a video message translated into English and Arabic ahead of his arrival, Pope Francis described the UAE as "a country which strives to be a model for coexistence and human fraternity, a meeting point of different civilizations and cultures. A place where people find a safe place to work, live freely and where differences are respected."
The UAE is also one of four Arab countries that cut ties with Qatar in 2017, in part over its support of the Brotherhood throughout the region. The UAE banned the news operations of Al Jazeera inside the country, expelled Qatari residents, blocked websites affiliated with Qatar and warned residents that anyone who expressed sympathy for Qatar could face up to 15 years in prison.
"Nobody's perfect in this world ... ," Al Nahyan, the tolerance minister, said. "We're proud of our acceptance, tolerance, respect for human dignity, having laws which protect everybody's right."