Muscat: Oman has a long history of religious tolerance, and to learn if this tradition is continuing, Times of Oman met with people from a number of faiths who agreed that Oman, indeed, remains an example of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.
While Islam is the official religion, Oman is also home to over 60 registered Christian groups, three Hindu temples, and two Sikh gurdwaras. Among Omanis there is diversity, too, with a number of Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Baha'i citizens.
Historically, religious tolerance was a social norm in Oman, and now it has a legal basis. Religious freedom is protected by Oman's basic law and discrimination based on religion is prohibited. It's also against the law to proselytise.
Tolerance and diversity is a result of Oman's history and geographical location, as well as its modern laws. For centuries, Omanis have been trading and interacting with other cultures.
"People were exposed to travelling and they learnt more about other people, other nations and other religions. If they wanted to do business with other nations, they had to be tolerant and understand other people," explains Hatim Al Abdissalaam, from the Islamic Information Centre at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
For centuries, there has been a Hindu community in Oman, which originally settled in Muscat. Some of the families who have greatly contributed to the development of the Sultanate have been granted Omani citizenship, and Sheikh Kanaksi Gokaldas Khimji was even given the title of Sheikh by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, an honour usually reserved for Muslims.
"We have been very fortunate to have lived in Oman and always found it very accepting, in terms of celebrating festivals and following our faith," says Brinda Toprani, a young Hindu woman who was raised in Oman and has some family members who have been granted Omani citizenship.
Chandrakanth Vallabhadas Chothani, who has lived in Muscat since 1975 and has been very active in the Gujarati community, credited His Majesty Sultan Qaboos with the level of freedom he has. "To be very honest and frank, all communities are enjoying the beauty of Oman and religious rights of this country, because of His Majesty's wide policy," he noted.
The Christian presence in Oman has a long history, too. The Reformed Church, which is from the United States, has been in Muscat since 1893.
"Many people doubt that Muslims and Christians can peacefully co-exist. Oman provides proof that we can. In the past 120 years, Omani Muslims and American Christians have worked together as healthcare professionals and educators, with Muslims remaining Muslims and Christians remaining Christians, to improve society for the common good of all. If it can happen in Oman, it can happen anywhere in the world," says Doug Leonard, who runs Al Amana Centre, an organisation that fosters dialogue and mutual learning between Muslims and Christians.
For expatriates living in Oman, religious freedom is something highly valued.
Alyssa Alexis, an American Christian who lives in Sur, says she is careful about how she practices her faith so that she doesn't offend anyone, but has been met by a generally kind and tolerant local population.
"I think Omanis are fairly tolerant of Christians, in general. Some seem to think Muslims and Christians are 'brothers' and others have tried (in not-too-pushy ways) to convert me. But, on the whole, they seem to accept that some foreigners who live here are Christians," says Alexis.
Religious minorities feel accepted
Chris Howitz, the lead Anglican pastor in Muscat, says Christians living in Oman can benefit from living among Muslims, because it can broaden their world views. He says interaction with Muslims can help Christians reflect on their own beliefs, too, and understand them better.
"To engage with another faith, especially Islam, enables you to see what the similarities are, but more importantly what the differences are, and what language or concepts aren't easily transferable. I think it's very valuable," he says.
Howitz also says the diversity of the Christians in Oman has made the different sects cooperate in ways they would not in their home countries, since they have to share facilities. "When you're brought together on these compounds, you have to put into practice what Jesus told us to do. We have to be united and to love each other," he explains.
One Omani business has gone beyond the call of duty in its respect for different people's faiths. At the Said Al Shahry Law Office, the non-Muslims, who include Hindus, Christians and even a follower of Jainism, are given three extra days off a year which they can use for their own religious celebrations, since the Muslim staff only work six hours per day during the Holy Month of Ramadan, explains Ahmed Al Muhkaini.
"It's not very common. It's by discretion of the employer. What we tried to do is regulate it on the basis of equal treatment. They can celebrate their time without needing to take annual leave," he says.
Religious minorities are generally accepted and respected in Oman, and they, too, need to be respectful of Islam, the main faith in Oman. Sané Lotter, a South African Christian who works at an international school in Muscat, says living here has made her more understanding, too.
"I've learned so much about different beliefs and their cultures. I've learned to be tolerant, too. I also firmly believe that we, as expats, must always dress appropriately and respect the Islamic culture here," she says, adding that she'll pause while teaching when there is a call to prayer, out of respect to her Muslim students.
For the most part, people of all persuasions coexist in harmony in Oman, but once in a while there are incidents of intolerance. Times of Oman was told of an incident in which a Hindu icon in a private vehicle was vandalised at a local garage, because it was deemed to be un-Islamic.
Al Abdissalaam says this is to be expected, because no country can be perfect and not everyone has a full understanding of their faith. "If you have no knowledge, you will act the way you think is right, not the way you have been taught and not the way that your scriptures have commanded you," he says.
Further, Doug Leonard, from Al Amana Center, says this happens not just in Oman, but everywhere. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, there were backlashes against Muslims in New York City who wanted to build a mosque near "ground zero," which abided by zoning laws and would have been legal. Ahmed Al Mukhaini has noticed some resentment of foreigners by young Omanis and is concerned by this. Yet he attributes it to economic factors, more than to religious discrimination.
"There have been some statements against expatriates by some people, particularly young Omanis, usually uneducated, usually unemployed, who feel expatriates are taking their jobs away from them, which is not true because Omanis will not do what the expats do. It's not about religion, it's economic," he explains.
Young Omanis who may be disrespectful of people of other faiths may have had a different exposure to the world than his generation had, and there needs to be more communication within families, adds Al Abdissalaam.
"There is a clash between old traditions and religion and the new modern ideology. Many times, parents fail to communicate with their children. It starts at home with the way that we live by respecting others, by being tolerant, by accepting differences between human beings. Then, automatically, children will grow up with this behaviour," Al Abdissalaam explains.
Throughout much of the Middle East there are conflicts, many of them based on religious differences or varying interpretations of faith. But Oman has proven that peaceful coexistence is possible. It's an important example to set, says Leonard. "Imagine the peace and prosperity that could be possible for our world if, instead of competing with one another and holding one another in suspicion, we became good neighbours, partners and friends," notes Leonard.
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