In a strikingly rare instance of a visit to Israel by representatives from an Arab country without diplomatic relations, a delegation of religious figures from the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain traveled to the Jewish state last month “to send a message of peace” from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
“Our message is peaceful coexistence with no government involvement,” said Betsy Mathieson, president of the Bahrain-based nongovernmental organization “This is Bahrain,” who led the delegation.
The 24 participants — Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs — were invited to the country as guests of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a US-based Jewish human rights group. Representing the first publicly known delegation to visit Israel from the Persian Gulf kingdom, many saw the trip as a sign of potential warming ties between the two countries.
In an exclusive Times of Israel Persian edition interview with members of the delegation in Jerusalem, Mathieson said that her seven-year-old NGO “celebrates religious freedom and peaceful coexistence by sharing the centuries-old humble Bahraini way of life, where people of all faiths live together in the spirit of mutual respect and love.”
Born into a Christian religious family in Scotland, Mathieson arrived in Bahrain in 1980 for work and has been living there since then. “We are out to reach people of faith,” she declared.
Mathieson said that the delegation came to Israel thanks to an invitation extended by Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles during a meeting with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in Bahrain last year.
“Bahraini citizens can go anywhere they want around the world; there are no restrictions on the Bahraini citizens,” the king replied to Hier, according to Mathieson, when asked whether the delegation could visit Israel.
“That’s the reason that we are here today,” Mathieson said.
Al-Khalifa has launched a global campaign for religious tolerance and coexistence with a number of far-reaching initiatives aimed at curbing religious extremism. In a 2017 publication that became known as “The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration,” he publicly vowed to tackle terrorism, extremism, violence, intolerance and hate and urged people of all faiths “to reject these actions and to pledge to replace them with mutual respect, understanding and love.”
“The language is popular language and it could be read and celebrated by millions and not thousands,” said Reverend Johnnie Moore, a member of the delegation that helped draft the declaration.
Moore said that the “profound document” calls on everyone to play an active role in building a global world where the belief in God is a blessing for all mankind and a foundation for peace. “When we worked together [on this document], I did not expect to get that far with the language,” he said.
Moore said that recent years have seen several similar efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue, like the Marrakesh Declaration and the Amman Message, but the Bahrain declaration is different in that it was written not by marginal scholars but by a Muslim Arab king.
Al-Khalifa sought input from Moore and Hier in drafting the declaration “due to the belief that all three Abrahamic faiths had to be consulted on this document,” Mathieson said.
Beyond the declaration, the king has also established an academic center at the Sapienza University in Rome named “The King Hamad Center for Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence,” to be launched in early 2018.
The delegation explained that the initiative aims to emphasize the king’s belief that religious freedom is the foundation for peaceful coexistence, with interfaith dialogue at its heart, and, consequently, the significance of education and of engaging the young generation around the globe.
The king’s campaign also includes the establishment of a new center in Bahrain’s capital city to be launched in 2018, “The King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence.” The center is planned as a place to host conferences, events, and dialogue promoting the stated goals and will include a museum to showcase the country’s legacy of religious freedom and coexistence. Mathieson quipped that the site could be “the perfect place” for holding Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Mathieson, who also serves as the secretary general of the Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Associations (BFEA), explained that for hundreds of years, Bahrainis have embraced their neighbors’ faiths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism and different sects of Islam, and have lived with them in love and harmony. That is the message that Mathieson and some other members of the delegation have been highlighting around the world, in London, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Washington, New York, Rome, Los Angeles, and most recently Jerusalem.
Bahrain is now engaged in the construction of the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, touted as the largest church ever built on the Arabian Peninsula, which will be housed alongside a new mosque, symbolizing religious freedom in the region.
“The king sent us with a message of peace to the whole world,” a Shiite cleric in the delegation told Hadashot news while in Israel. The cleric said that Shiites, who make up the majority in the Sunni-ruled country, do not harbor ill will toward members of any other faiths. “The Shiites in Bahrain and outside don’t feel hatred, they don’t carry a message of loathing or hate toward any religion or religious stream whatsoever,” he said.
Bahrain faced protests from its Shiite community following the outbreak of the Arab Spring across the region in 2011. With the help of Saudi Arabia, which sent troops across the causeway separating the two countries, Bahrain put down the demonstrations, which it accused Shiite-majority Iran of helping to orchestrate.
Iran’s news outlets, most of them affiliated with the country’s hardliners, rushed to report on the Bahraini delegation’s visit to Israel, specifically giving voice to criticism of the trip expressed throughout the Arab world.
The Tasnim news agency quoted the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement as saying the trip was considered “a departure from Islamic and Arabic values.” Press TV, referring to The Times of Israel’s report on the visit, reported that “Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society,” the Bahraini main opposition party, “strongly condemns any attempt by Manama to normalize ties with Israel.” The semi-official channel described the delegation’s visit in Israel as “a consequence” of the Donald Trump administration’s policy, including the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, announced just three days prior to the delegation’s visit.
Like Israel, Bahrain has extremely fraught relations with Iran. A September 2017 report on the Middle East Eye website quoted an unnamed Bahraini official as saying the establishment of ties between Jerusalem and Manama could help counter Iran.
That report came days after Hier, following his meeting with the Bahraini king, told The Times of Israel that the king had come out against the Arab states’ boycott of Israel and intended to allow citizens from his kingdom to visit the Jewish state freely.
Bahrain, a group of islands in the Persian Gulf with a population of 1.4 million, has no formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. However, a trickle of Israeli tourists and businessmen have been known to visit the country in recent years.
In 2009, Bahrain’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa penned an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he urged Arab countries to communicate more with Israel for the sake of the peace process. In 2016, when former president Shimon Peres died, Bahrain was the only Persian Gulf country to publicly mourn his passing.