Even for Los Angeles, where spectaculars are often met with a stifled yawn, the international tribal gathering in the Beverly Wilshire ballroom was an eye opener.
There were delegations of Buddhists in saffron robes, Sikhs in turbans, Muslims with keffiyehs and hijabs, Jews with kippahs and Christians in business suits.
At the invitation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, some 400 members of these diverse groups came together Sept. 13 to sign and support a declaration denouncing religious hatred and violence in all forms, to support full freedom of religious choice and government protection of minorities and to ensure that religious faith “serve as a blessing to all mankind and as the foundation of peace in the world.”
Given the past and present behavior of mankind, it doesn’t take a skeptic to view this and similar declarations as pie-in-the-sky illusions. What is different in this instance is that the declaration was promulgated and drafted by the ruler of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf where such ideas have been in effect for centuries.
Bahrain has some 1.4 million residents, 70 percent of whom are Muslim. Christians make up 14 1/2 percent of the population, 10 percent is Hindu and 2 1/2 percent is Buddhist. The percentage of Jews is listed in different surveys as a fraction of 1 percent, but the actual number is even smaller, ranging between 36 to 40 actual residents.
Large numbers of Jews left the country following riots in 1947 and 1967, but Jewish, Muslim and British sources agree that the riots were triggered by pro-Palestinian outsiders and that resident Arabs went out of their way to protect their Jewish neighbors.
With the ascendancy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the throne in 2002, domestic and foreign observers see an almost utopian state of relationships among Bahrain’s religious groups. However, human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have accused the monarchy and ruling class, who are Sunni Muslim, of discriminating against the country’s majority Shiite Muslims.
The monarch, who has an impressive collection of Frank Sinatra records, has enshrined religious tolerance both in the country’s law and by personal example. For instance, since 2015, he has celebrated Chanukah with both Jews and Muslims in attendance.
At the dinner in Beverly Hills, Sami Abdulla, a government minister responsible for housing projects, was asked whether there were any problems in what sounded like paradise on earth. He said the main fear of his countrymen was that the region’s many problems and hostilities would spill over into their nation.
Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, the Orthodox rabbis whose unorthodox projects and initiatives as leaders of the Wiesenthal Center often vex more conventional Jewish organizations, visited Manama, Bahrain’s capital, by invitation, early this year.
A walk through the city, Cooper said, was an eye-opener. He said he saw a church, with a huge cross, next to a Hindu temple, and nearby an impressive mosque. Even a small synagogue, the only one in the Persian Gulf region, still stands in an older part of the city.
Hier and Cooper met with King Hamad and discussed the ruler’s plan to establish a Museum of Religious Tolerance in the capital by the end of this year.
Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Cooper noted, that during the audience with the king, the king denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said his subjects were free to visit Israel.
A universal statement on religious tolerance, written by the king, was celebrated as The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration at the Beverly Hills event. Key points emphasized freedom of religious choice, religious rights and responsibilities and “faith illuminating the path to peace.”
The evert drew guests including officials from such predominantly Muslim nations as Kuwait, Egypt, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. Arab officials stood as the colorful Bahrain National Orchestra, conducted by Field Marshal Mubarak Najem, played “Hatikvah,” preceded by the Bahraini and U.S. national anthems, sung by Sumaya Meer and Cantor Arik Wolheim.
The keynote speaker was Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king and a formidable athlete, who led the Bahraini delegations and had toured the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.
As the evening’s climax, guests formally signed the Bahrain Declaration, among them the speakers, visiting Arab officials, clergymen of various faiths, television personality Mary Hart, who served as the evening’s master of ceremonies; UCLA Professor Judea Pearl, and Betsy Bennett Mathieson, president of This Is Bahrain, a government-supported booster organization.
Mathieson presented each guest with a lapel pin featuring symbols of the country’s seven religions, with a Jewish menorah adjoining a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent.
Asked whether the evening’s upbeat tone and hopeful notes were warranted in the light of the Mideast’s apparently endless conflicts, Cooper said Bahrain, like Israel, “lives in a tough neighborhood. But if there is to be any hope for the future, it will have to be realized by voices of religious moderation.”