Human rights activists are raising concerns about the United Arab Emirates’ new claims of ground-breaking religious tolerance while its legal system —with its reliance on Sharia law—has forced a Christian American family into a five-year, tortuous court fight to recover its rightful inheritance.
Pope Francis made a historic visit to the UAE in January, marking the first time any pope has been allowed to travel in the Arabian Peninsula in more than a thousand years. Afterward, Sam Brownback, the former senator and Kansas governor who now serves as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, applauded the UAE, which is predominantly Muslim. Brownback touted the country as a trailblazer for religious tolerance in the region during a visit to Abu Dhabi in late February.
The papal visit was a breakthrough for religious tolerance in the heart of the Muslim world, with its gathering of 120,000 Christians in Zayed Sports Stadium and his dialogue with UAE leaders, including the crown prince and the local Muslim Council of Elders. The UAE used the occasion to declare 2019 “the year of tolerance” and announced a “festival of tolerance,” as well as a new cabinet post for a minister of tolerance.
However, those keeping tabs on government restrictions on religion and biases in the judicial systems across the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East are warning businesses, other would-be investors, and travelers to the UAE that severe cases of discrimination continue to persist there. Moreover, they are actually government-ordered in Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s neighbor and closest ally.
A Virginia family’s legal saga began when Franz Zenz, who has worked in Dubai since shortly after the Sept. 11th attacks and owned roughly $5 million in property there, died in his family home in McLean, Va., in 2014 after suffering from bone cancer. His wife of 41 years, Nicole, and his two daughters have spent the last five years trying to handle his estate and recover their inheritance.
When his family tried to assume ownership of several of their Zenz’s properties in Dubai, they needed to go through the country’s courts, which are riddled with biases against Christians and other religious minorities, as well as foreign citizens.