Teach­ing tol­er­ance in Bahrain

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By FELICE FRIEDSON

MANAMA – Seek­ing to ad­vance projects with the United States that pro­mote re­spect and co­op­er­a­tion among the var­i­ous re­li­gions, the King Ha­mad Global Cen­ter for Peace­ful Co­ex­is­tence in Bahrain will be sign­ing a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with the US in Manama next month.

US spe­cial en­voy to mon­i­tor and com­bat an­ti­semitism Elan Carr, rep­re­sent­ing the Amer­i­cans, will be hon­ored at the event.

“Bahrain, un­der the lead­er­ship of His Majesty King Ha­mad bin Isa Al Khal­ifa, has made it a top pri­or­ity to build a bet­ter and more tol­er­ant Mid­dle East,” Carr told The Me­dia Line.

“Bahrain rec­og­nizes that an­ti­semitism is not only evil, but that it in­flicts a ter­ri­ble toll on the so­ci­eties that em­brace it,” he con­tin­ued. “I am grate­ful to the King Ha­mad Global Cen­ter for Peace­ful Co­ex­is­tence for propos­ing this col­lab­o­ra­tion with my of­fice to fight an­ti­semitism, es­pe­cially in the Arab and Muslim world, and pro­mot­ing mu­tual re­spect and af­fec­tion be­tween the peo­ples and re­li­gions of the Mid­dle East.”

The cen­ter is look­ing to fo­cus on youth em­pow­er­ment, which in­cludes the shar­ing of faith sto­ries, in­ter­faith di­a­logue, training pro­grams and a series of events planned around the world, in­clud­ing at the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly, ac­cord­ing to Betsy Mathieson, deputy chair­per­son of the cen­ter.

“The aim is to stop abuse and dis­crim­i­na­tion of all faiths in the spirit of love and re­spect, which is vi­tal for a peace­ful world,” she ex­plained to The Me­dia Line.

SMALL­EST OF the Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries, at a mere 293 square miles (759 square kilo­me­ters), and in­hab­ited by a pop­u­la­tion of just 1.5 mil­lion, Bahrain has led the re­gion’s path to­ward tol­er­ance for cen­turies. Mathieson cred­its the king as say­ing that Bahrain has been a sanc­tu­ary for those es­cap­ing religious op­pres­sion since the Nesto­rian Chris­tians were per­se­cuted by the Byzan­tine Em­pire be­tween the fourth and sev­enth cen­turies.

“Bahrain was a haven in those days and re­mains that way to­day,” she said.

Sheikh Khalid bin Khal­ifa Al Khal­ifa, chair­man of the board of trustees of the cen­ter and a dis­tin­guished his­to­rian, stressed that the ev­i­den­tial history of religious tol­er­ance in Bahrain can­not be de­nied.

“Some coun­tries make tol­er­ance and peace­ful co­ex­is­tence cen­ters to have the peace­ful co­ex­is­tence in their coun­tries,” he said. “Bahrain is just the op­po­site. We have had peace­ful ex­is­tence for many years – hun­dreds of years – and we would like to re­flect this to the world through our cen­ter.”

Khal­ifa has served on Bahrain’s Shura Council, or par­lia­ment, and has headed its For­eign Af­fairs, De­fense and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee.

“I my­self stud­ied in a Chris­tian school. No­body at the time asked why a Muslim boy would study in a Chris­tian school, so that’s why it is part of our lives, a part of our so­ci­ety,” he re­lated.

“From a religious point of view,” he went on, “we have no dif­fer­ences. There is no con­flict at all. We have lived with Jews in Bahrain for many years as neigh­bors. I had my neigh­bor, Ezra, when I was a child. He came to my house and we ate to­gether. I re­mem­ber that even when I was small – I mean when I was young, a child – they said about this Ezra, ‘He’s a Jew!’ And I didn’t know what ‘Jew’ meant. In fact, I didn’t know what Muslim meant. So, that’s what I think: Sep­a­rate re­li­gion from pol­i­tics and you’ll be safe.”

The King Ha­mad Global Cen­ter is a world leader in pro­mot­ing religious free­dom, in­ter­faith di­a­logue and peace­ful co­ex­is­tence as a means to com­bat ter­ror­ism, ex­trem­ism, vi­o­lence and hate, spear­head­ing events from Wind­sor Cas­tle to the United Na­tions. It is head­quar­tered in the Isa Cul­tural Cen­ter Com­plex, a majestic spir­i­tual hub for young people, aca­demics, diplo­mats, religious lead­ers and NGOs.

Last Septem­ber, the King Ha­mad Chair for In­ter­faith Di­a­logue and Peace­ful Co­ex­is­tence was es­tab­lished at Italy’s Sapienza Univer­sità di Roma with the ob­jec­tive of pro­vid­ing fun­da­men­tal in­stru­ments, meth­ods and skills in order to crit­i­cally study the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween re­li­gions from the point of view of peace­ful co­ex­is­tence.

BACK IN Bahrain, Shushil Mu­ji­mal is dressed in col­or­ful Hindu garb. He is chair­man of the king­dom’s Bha­tia com­mu­nity, which cel­e­brated 200 years in 2019, and chair­man of its Hindu Tem­ple.

He shares the com­mu­nity’s history. “Be­fore, Bahrain was Bri­tish-pro­tected, and much of my fam­ily used to come here reg­u­larly by boat. And there was no visa re­quire­ment or any­thing like that. They would come to Bahrain, do business, take some items from here [and] sail to In­dia,” Mu­ji­mal re­lates.

“In time, they es­tab­lished one small tem­ple with the per­mis­sion of the king. It was al­most 200 years ago. They said you can do what­ever you want. You are at lib­erty and no­body will take any­thing, and this is my per­mis­sion to you,” he says.

“We will re­mem­ber this be­cause these words were told by my grand­fa­ther to

me, and to him by his grand­fa­ther, that Bahrain is a place where you can live peace­fully, with­out any fear,” he states. “Al­though we are Hindu and [oth­ers] are Muslim, I feel they have wel­comed us to do what­ever our rit­u­als say. And since then, I think the Hindu com­mu­nity has swelled to more than 150,000 people in Bahrain.”

The Sri Kr­ishna Tem­ple is in the midst of a $4.2-mil­lion ren­o­va­tion. It brought Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi of In­dia to Manama on his first of­fi­cial visit.

More than half of the king­dom’s pop­u­la­tion is made up of ex­pats from more than 100 coun­tries. The streets are lined with hun­dreds of mosques, Sunni and Shia in­ter­wo­ven. There are churches of an ar­ray of de­nom­i­na­tions along with Hindu, Sikh and Bud­dhist tem­ples, as well as a syn­a­gogue that ser­vices a tiny Jewish com­mu­nity that is hard-pressed to to­tal 40 people.

On Oc­to­ber 10, 2017, King Ha­mad bin Isa Al Khal­ifa is­sued a King­dom of Bahrain Dec­la­ra­tion that promi­nently states, in his words: “Ig­no­rance is the en­emy of peace. It is there­fore our duty to learn, share and live to­gether by the tenets of faith in the spirit of mu­tual re­spect and love.”

Mathieson tells The Me­dia Line that the king wanted to pen a doc­u­ment that would “pre­serve Bahrain’s cul­ture and her­itage, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to peace­ful co­ex­is­tence and the right of all people from around the world to come to Bahrain to wor­ship un­hin­dered and safely.”

RABBI MARVIN HIER, dean and founder of the Si­mon Wiesen­thal Cen­ter, re­counted how he and oth­ers in a del­e­ga­tion had the honor of meet­ing HRH King Ha­mad at his palace.

“We found an Arab leader out­spo­ken in his hopes of forg­ing a new path in re­la­tions with the Jewish world,” Hier said.

“That led to a re­mark­able his­toric dec­la­ra­tion on religious tol­er­ance un­der his name, which was launched in Los Angeles by his son, Prince Nasser, who, along with my­self, was the first of 400 in­ter­faith lead­ers who signed the dec­la­ra­tion,” he stated.

Hier notes that there were three an­thems sung at the Bev­erly Wil­shire Ho­tel that morn­ing: “In ad­di­tion to the Bahraini an­them came the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner and Hatikva, the Is­raeli na­tional an­them.”

Rabbi Abra­ham Cooper, as­so­ciate dean and di­rec­tor of global so­cial ac­tion for the Wiesen­thal Cen­ter, signed the dec­la­ra­tion at an event in Mum­bai.

Upon meet­ing King Ha­mad, Cooper asked him if he would al­low Bahrai­nis to visit Is­rael.

“Two years ago, I hosted 24 in­ter­faith lead­ers from Bahrain in Jerusalem,” he told The Me­dia Line. “The launch of the global Tol­er­ance Cen­ter un­der the lead­er­ship of Sheikh Khaled was the next log­i­cal move.”

Sub­se­quently, Cooper ap­proached Carr, the US spe­cial en­voy, with the sug­ges­tion that “best prac­tices” be added to his dif­fi­cult man­date of com­bat­ing an­ti­semitism. He brought Carr and Bahraini lead­ers to­gether to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity that the king­dom would be the per­fect can­di­date to be the first to en­ter into a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the US.

“Bahrain is cru­cial to US goals in the re­gion of iso­lat­ing the Ira­nian regime and pro­mot­ing ties with its ally, Is­rael. All Bahraini ges­tures and moves vis-à-vis the Jewish world are closely mon­i­tored by Saudi Ara­bia and en­cour­age mod­er­ates to push for­ward against religious fa­nat­ics. Fi­nally, Bahrain is a re­li­giously tol­er­ant Arab na­tion and a role model for all Arab and Muslim na­tions,” Cooper said, adding, “and here we are.”

“It is re­mark­able that the progress we have made over the past few years is now where we can point to [Bahrain], an Arab coun­try, that emerges as a par­a­digm of religious tol­er­ance, so much so that [dur­ing] a re­cent eco­nomic fo­rum, Rabbi Hier led the first prayer ser­vice at the syn­a­gogue in Manama since 1948,” Cooper said.

Last year, the King Ha­mad Cen­ter signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing to ad­vance religious free­dom. In so do­ing, it be­came the first Mid­dle Eastern coun­try to part­ner with the Religious Free­dom and Business Foun­da­tion, and the In­ter­na­tional Religious Free­dom Round­table, both based in Wash­ing­ton, as part of a coali­tion of busi­nesses for the pro­tec­tion of religious free­dom specif­i­cally en­cour­ag­ing the pri­vate sec­tor to pro­tect people of all faiths and be­liefs in the work­place.

Bahrain was also the first Arab state to reach tier 1 sta­tus, mean­ing a coun­try mak­ing the max­i­mum ef­fort, in the US State De­part­ment’s Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons Report. It signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing to as­sist in the build­ing of a UN of­fice for training in drugs and crime for the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

Sheikh Ha­mad, the king, looks to his neigh­bors, as he sees Bahrain en­cour­ag­ing other Mideast na­tions and be­yond, to work to­ward peace­ful co­ex­is­tence.

“They went, like us, to the United States – es­pe­cially the UAE, Saudi Ara­bia and other coun­tries. I think this is the right way. We en­cour­aged them,” he said. “Re­gion­ally speak­ing, the Arab world needs to set an ex­am­ple.”

(Cour­tesy)

RABBI MARVIN HIER (cen­ter) and Rabbi Abra­ham Cooper (right) of the Si­mon Wiesen­thal Cen­ter meet with King Ha­mad bin Isa Al Khal­ifa in Manama, Bahrain, in February 2017.

(Cour­tesy)

ELAN CARR, US Spe­cial En­voy to Mon­i­tor and Com­bat An­ti­semitism.

(TML photos)

THE WRITER (fifth from left) joins Sheikh Khalid bin Khal­ifa Al Khal­ifa, chair­man of the King Ha­mad Global Cen­tre for Peace­ful Co­ex­is­tence, and other religious lead­ers to learn about co­ex­is­tence in Bahrain.

(TML photos)

SHUSHIL MU­JI­MAL, chair­man of the Hindu Tem­ple.

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