Even for Los Angeles, where spectaculars often are met with a stifled yawn, a recent international tribal gathering in a Beverly Wilshire Hotel 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.
Some 400 members of these diverse groups came together on Sept. 13, at the invitation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for a noble objective. The aim was to sign and support a declaration denouncing religious hatred and violence in all their forms; to support full freedom of religious choice and government protection of minorities; and to ensure that religious faith “serves 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 was different in this instance was that the declaration was promulgated and drafted by the ruler of a country where such ideas have been in effect for centuries. That country is Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain has some 1.4 million inhabitants, and a breakdown of its religious faiths indicates that 70 percent are Muslims, 14.5 percent are Christians, 10 percent are Hindus and 2.5 percent are Buddhists. 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 and 40 residents.
Large parts of the Jewish population 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.
But with the ascendancy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the throne in 2002, domestic and foreign observers have seen an almost utopian state of relations among Bahrain’s religious groups. The monarch has enshrined religious tolerance in the country’s laws and by personal example. For instance, since 2015, he has celebrated Chanukah with both Jews and Muslims in attendance.
During the dinner in Beverly Hills, Sami Abdulla, a Bahrain government minister responsible for housing projects, was asked whether there were any problems in what sounded like paradise on earth. He responded that the main fear of his countrymen was that the surrounding region’s many problems and hostilities would at some point spill over into their nation.
Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, the two Orthodox rabbis whose unorthodox projects and initiatives as leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center often vex more conventional Jewish organizations, visited Manama, Bahrain’s capital, by invitation in early 2017. A walk through the city, Cooper said, was enlightening. There was a church, with a huge cross, next to a Hindu temple; and 100 yards away was an impressive mosque. 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 Hamad and discussed the ruler’s plan to establish a Museum of Religious Tolerance in the capital city by the end of this year.
Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. However, Cooper noted, during the audience with the king, the latter denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said his subjects were free to visit the Jewish state.
Another point of discussion at the Beverly Hills event was a universal statement on religious tolerance written by the king and celebrated as the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.
The document’s key points emphasized freedom of religious choice, religious rights and responsibilities, and “faith illuminating the path to peace.”
The evening’s guests included officials from such predominantly Muslim nations as Kuwait, Egypt, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. Like all others present, the Arab officials stood in respect as the colorful Bahrain National Orchestra, conducted by Field Marshal Mubarak Najem, played “Hatikvah,” preceded by the Bahraini and United States national anthems, sung by Sumaya Meer and Cantor Arik Wolheim.
The main speaker was Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king, who led the Bahraini delegation, toured the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and met with Jewish students.
As the evening’s climax, a group of distinguished guests on the dais signed the Bahrain Declaration, among them the speakers; visiting Arab officials; clergymen of various faiths; the evening’s master of ceremonies, television personality Mary Hart; UCLA professor Judea Pearl; and Betsy Bennett Mathieson, president of This Is Bahrain. The government-supported booster organization 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.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, a reporter asked Cooper whether the evening’s upbeat tone and hopeful notes were warranted in light of the Mideast’s seemingly endless conflicts.
Cooper responded that 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.”