Manama: As Betsy Mathieson was preparing her speech for the ceremony to be attended by King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa, she had a wide spectrum of topics to talk about it. But, assessing the situation, she opted to focus on a particular issue that has struck her in the island kingdom where she has been holding the position of Secretary-General of the Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Associations (BFEA).
She thought that amid all the conflicts plaguing the region and the world, peaceful religious coexistence stood out as a major feature of Bahrain.
“In the modern innovative and progressive Kingdom of Bahrain, religious freedom is enjoyed by all faiths which worship without hindrance and without fear. This freedom is so special to Bahrain in this region and we are very grateful for Your Majesty’s sincere belief in and commitment to this freedom,” Betsy, the Scots-born activist living in Bahrain, told the king.
“The presence of religious leaders from around the world in Bahrain, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews, is clear evidence that the Bahrain model of centuries old peaceful coexistence is the key to combating prejudices, discrimination, fear and ignorance and at the same time offering a simple, proven solution to fighting the rise of global terrorism.”
For Betsy, the amazing social diversity of Bahrainis growing up in a multi-cultural and multi-faith society is a powerful educational tool.
“Bahrainis accept this diversity as the correct and normal way to live and this is why Bahrain and her people will always reject radicalism, extremism, sectarianism and sedition as totally alien to Bahrain and the Bahraini way of life,” she said.
“In a world torn by worrisome disputes and conflicts that often push certain individuals to carry the weapons of extremism, hatred, fanaticism and unjustified violence, what Bahrain enjoys of a commodious space and an all-encompassing environment that embraces the various components of our diverse society, may not be available in abundance elsewhere.”
Into a private school in the suburbs of the Bahraini capital Manama, walked Rasha, a petite young student, a bit awed by the unusual setting. It was her first day and she was excited and apprehensive in equal measure.
As she was greeted by the management staff welcoming the students with a broad smile, she felt more at ease.
She liked the idea, but she was not still sure they accepted the fact that she was wearing a gold pendant in the shape of a crescent.
She read somewhere that the policy of her school did not ban religious symbols. However, she wanted to make sure that the policy was genuinely applied and that she would not have to muddle through the religious symbol controversies that have hit schools in other countries.
When by the end of the day, after going through seven periods with different teachers and brief encounters with most of the administrative staff later, nobody objected to her wearing the religious symbol, she had a deep sigh of relief.
The pendant was a gift from her mother and had a deep sentimental value. She had lost her mother to cancer and the pendant was the most significant gift she kept from her deceased mother. It was her good luck talisman and she did not want to do away with it, even for fleeting hours.
Rasha felt fortunate her school policy was highly tolerant of a situation that divided several countries along religious faults.
“This is a large private school with around 40 nationalities and various social, linguistic and religious backgrounds,” Samira, a teacher at the school, said. “In fact, it is a mini United Nations and a genuine international community. Dealing with all the people here requires the adoption of a positive commitment to pluralism and multiculturalism.”
She wore the crescent pendant for the first to school last year.
“I performed the pilgrimage for the first time two years ago and my mother offered me the pendant as a gift on the auspicious occasion. It has such a sentimental value that I have been wearing it ever since,” she said.
“Under other skies, there is shock and mistrust, but I am glad that in our school, there is mutual acceptance for who we are and what we represent. We learn from one another. By wearing an Islamic pendant, I am not offending anyone or targeting any other religion. I am a Muslim and I do not hide it. I am not telling people — Hey, look. My religion is the best and yours is bad. Anyone can wear the symbols they like and I am not shocked. We are not like some countries that have imposed bans on religious symbols in schools and elsewhere and keep taking about pluralism, multiculturalism and other — isms they do not really apply.”
Overwhelmingly Muslim, Bahrain is also home to native Christians and Jews.
The small Jewish community comprises less than 50 members who have their own synagogue and cemetery. Many of the members are descendants of families who settled in the island kingdom and thrived in business.
The community began to settle in Bahrain in the early 1900s and most of its members were traders from Iraq, Iran and India looking for a peaceful place.
Despite the waves of anti-Israel protests since the creation of Israel in the Arab world, no Jewish business has ever been vandalised or destroyed and no shop sign was ever taken down or marred.
The community was represented in the upper chamber of the bicameral parliament by Ebrahim Daoud Nonoo. In 2005, he was replaced by his niece, Houda Ezra Nonoo, a businesswoman who manages Gulf Computers Services, who had made history by becoming the first non-Muslim woman to head a human rights society and the first Jewish woman Member of Parliament in Bahrain.
Houda again made history in 2008 when she became the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab and predominantly Muslim country appointed to the US.
The Jewish community in Bahrain is today represented by Nancy Khadhori in the 40-seat Shura Council (upper chamber).
The Jewish cemetery in Manama, well-kept for over 100 years, is next to the Christian graveyard, near a large Sunni mosque and across the street from the Shiite cemetery.
The synagogue is regarded as one the iconic places in Manama that reflect the kingdom’s cultural pluralism.
Most Christian families arrived in Bahrain late in the 19th century, mainly from Iraq and Turkey. They were followed in the 1940s by more Arab Christian mostly from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan who came to work as teachers, doctors and businessmen.
According to the Christian community, Bahraini Christians constitute around 1 per cent of the total population, but the number of Christians from other nationalities, living and working in Bahrain, is over 100,000.
Bahrain has 19 registered churches. The first Christian church was built in 1905 by the American missionaries soon after their arrival.
The National Evangelical Church became in 1906 the first church to offer services in Bahrain.
Roman Catholics have two churches, the Sacred Heart Church in Manama, and the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Visitation in Awali, a former oil town in central Bahrain. The Sacred Heart, built in 1940, serves around 140,000 people, mainly Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans.