Bahrain to host meeting of Jewish and Islamic scholars
Jan 8, 2012
Bahrain has pledged to host a meeting of Jewish and Islamic scholars later this year as the embattled Gulf state reinforces its image of tolerance amid a continuing crackdown on pro-democracy protests. Rabbi Marc Schneier, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, said the first bilateral Jewish-Muslim dialogue in the Gulf aims to build trust by finding common religious ground between the two groups as an essential precondition for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As tensions in the Gulf increase amid fears that Tehran could acquire nuclear weapons, Rabbi Schneier says Arab leaders are telling him that Israel and the Arabs share a common enemy in Iran. “There is no question that Iran is an existentialist threat to Israel, and is becoming an existentialist threat to the Arab states,” he told the Financial Times. “We all share a common enemy – perhaps that can bring reconciliation.” The move comes as Bahrain faces continued demonstrations across areas dominated by the majority Shia, who are leading protests against the minority Sunni government. Bahrain, which has a small domestic Jewish minority, has touted its tolerance of a multi-faith expatriate population. However, Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, says the country’s impressive history of religious tolerance has been tarnished, especially with the destruction of Shia religious sites during the crackdown. “The crisis in Bahrain has political roots but has become increasingly sectarianised,” she said, noting the absence of dialogue between Sunni and Shia clerics. “It is this critical issue of Sunni-Shia sectarianism that Bahrain really needs to address, going beyond PR efforts.” The Bahraini government blames Iran for fomenting the unrest, even though an independent commission into abuses found no “discernible link” between Iran and the protesters. Opposition activists have distanced themselves from Iran, saying the uprising aims to end political and economic discrimination while promoting democracy. Rabbi Schneier said King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa joked with him at their recent meeting in Manama, saying Jews and Arabs have their differences, “but we are cousins,” referring to shared Semitic roots. Members of Bahrain’s tiny Jewish population have been vocal supporters of the king throughout the crisis, which saw Saudi Arabia lead Gulf troops onto the island to back a violent clampdown, followed by a campaign of arrests, torture and sackings against the mostly Shia protesters. Shrugging off such concerns, Rabbi Schneier said King Hamad had assured him of Bahrain’s commitment to reform. Describing Bahrain as a regional “model” for religious tolerance, progress in bridging religious differences between the monotheistic religions could only help ease sectarian Muslim tensions, he said. The government is changing laws to promote freedom of expression and has hired foreign experts to reform the security forces and set up a mechanism to hold officials to account, but activists say progress is slow and hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain behind bars.