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,