A delegation of Israeli business leaders is due to visit Bahrain next month in a follow-up to the current visit to Jerusalem of a Bahraini interfaith group, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center which is the organizer of both initiatives.
Cooper, speaking to The Jerusalem Post at a dinner for the interfaith group, said: “The Bahrainis have approved it. It will be a Wiesenthal Center delegation. The idea is to establish some direct contacts, which are not political, but the idea is to start normal contacts.”
The interfaith group’s visit has sparked outrage among Palestinians and also back home in Bahrain.
Cooper termed the visit of the 24-member interfaith delegation, which began on Saturday and concluded on Wednesday, a “breakthrough.”
The delegation included Christians, Sunnis, one Shi’ite, a Hindu leader, a Buddhist, a Sikh and others – all of them organized by the pro-monarchy NGO This is Bahrain. The vast majority of the delegation were expatriates who live in Bahrain, but it also included several native Bahrainis. Muslims comprised a minority of the delegation.
“This was not done under the radar. It was done openly by two NGO’s knowing full well it would generate controversy,” Cooper said. He says the delegation’s visit should be viewed as a follow-up of a pledge by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to him and Wiesenthal Center dean Marvin Hier who visited Manama last February to allow his subjects to travel to Israel freely.
The delegation made the trip to Jerusalem at an extremely volatile time and despite anger among Palestinians and in the Arab world over US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Its members insist it was a non-political visit but their critics see it as paving the way for normalization between Israel and the Gulf states at the expense of the Palestinian cause. “We’d planned this many months ago. We’ll never let a political statement stop us. Politics changes but our mission to spread coexistence doesn’t change,” said Betsy Mathieson, the head of the group. She says the delegation is a reflection of how religions coexist in Bahrain and that This is Bahrain seeks to spread a message of peace worldwide.
But human rights monitors say that Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni minority, is in fact very far from a model country and that the government persecutes members of its Shi’ite majority.
Mathieson said that people criticizing the group “have misunderstood. We haven’t met with any government officials. We believe it’s our duty to share the example of the way we live in Bahrain. And we see the same in Jerusalem – people of all faiths living in harmony and peace. We’ve seen it with our own eyes.”
Before the dinner, delegation members took pictures with their cellphones as Cooper lit a menorah. Earlier, some of them joined locals in dancing to celebrate Hanukka on the main thoroughfare in the Mamilla area. “We were asked to join. Why not? Music is for everyone,” said Sushil Muljimal, a leader of a Hindu temple in Manama. “Our mission is to convey a message of peace. We’ve got nothing to do with politics. For us, Jewish people are the same, Palestinians are the same, all are the same.”
Qais Abdul-Kareem, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, condemned the visit, saying: “They’ve chosen a very inappropriate time to spread their message of tolerance. This is a time the whole world is centered on the future of Jerusalem after the American move to recognize it as Israel’s capital. In fact, this visit has political substance, which is to pave the way for normalization of relations between certain Arab states, particularly the Gulf states, with Israel when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not solved and the Israelis continue their occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. This was politically wrong from the beginning and it caused more anger because it came at a very inappropriate time.”
PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said, “They either are totally clueless or they are being deliberately provocative. I think the lesser of these two evils is that they are clueless.” She said she does not accept “this whole lovey-dovey approach of ‘We’re here to show tolerance.’ Then go home and show tolerance at home. Bahrain certainly can’t boast of a lot of tolerance domestically.”
In Bahrain, the visit was widely condemned on social media under a hashtag that said “Bahrain resists normalization.” Al Jazeera quoted Basmah al-Kassab, a Bahraini blogger, as writing: “I believe the Zionist entity is an unjust occupier. The delegation’s visit to occupied east Jerusalem is shameful and immoral and its claim that it represents the Bahraini people is unjust and insulting.”
In a sense, the trip is a follow-up to a visit by the king’s son, Nasser Bin Hamad al-Khalifa to the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in September to unveil the king’s “Declaration of Worldwide Religious Tolerance.” The declaration upholds support for full freedom of religious choice and stresses that governments should protect minorities. It also calls for ensuring that religion “serves as a blessing for all mankind and a foundation of peace in the world.”
A spokesman for the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said at the time that the king is displaying warmth toward Jews and projecting himself as a statesman of religious tolerance in order to cover over human rights abuses and persecution against members of the Shi’ites.
Mathieson said the critics could change their minds. “If every time I let ignorance overcome my mission I’d never do anything. When they understand the real reason for our visit they’ll be happy.”
She said her favorite time during the visit was walking in the Old City with the delegation. “We were warmly met. People of all faiths greeted us. Our message was warmly received.”
Mona George, a Jordanian-born Palestinian with Bahraini citizenship, said her trip was about prayer, not politics. “Because of faith, I liked it. I like visiting churches and to pray. I stayed for two hours on my knees in church. Going to the Church of the Nativity was amazing. I prayed for my family, for my children.”
A Bahraini-born Muslim female participant said the highlight of her visit was praying in al-Aksa Mosque. “There was no problem. No one knew where I’m from.” Asked how the group members spent their time, she said: “I went to the Old City. Some went by themselves to Bethlehem. A group went by themselves to the Dead Sea. Each person did what he wanted.”
The woman, who asked for anonymity, said it was actually the wrong time to make the visit because of Trump’s move. “But we had decided before. It had been arranged before.”
She said she disagrees with the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “I wish he didn’t do it. We are looking for peace. He’s involving himself and making trouble for everyone.”
She added that she is not worried she will face hostility upon returning to Bahrain. “I didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t meet anyone from the government. We’re here for peace.”