- - Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Bahrain has been a crossroads of commerce and culture since the ancient Greeks. Today, it remains a melting pot, the tolerant home to many religions and ethnicities. Christians, Hindus, Jews and others worship openly alongside their Muslim brothers. All cultures are respected.

Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United Arab Emirates — the first by any pope to the Gulf region — was remarkable. As Vatican flags flew on the peninsula where Islam was born, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church joined a prominent imam to preach love, peace and religious pluralism.

This inspiring message should reverberate around the world and encourage the world to look at the region a little closer than they have.

Bahrain is an island nation of 1.3 million on the Arabian Gulf that has won plaudits for its openness from Western governments, including the United States. Earlier this year, U.S. State Department senior policy adviser Brian Hook praised Bahrain’s leaders for “deepening their commitment to peaceful coexistence and religious freedom.”

Washington officials have seen Bahrain’s diversity first hand. It was the first Arab nation to have a Jewish ambassador to the United States. The appointment of Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo from 2008 to 2013, after she served for three years in Bahrain’s Parliament, is indicative of the leadership’s efforts to advance the regional discourse on genuine cultural acceptance.

Bahrain has long advocated for women as a crucial component of the country’s decision-making process. Over the years, this message has resonated, and in December history was made when Bahrain’s Parliament elected Fawzia Zainal as its first female Speaker of the Council of Representatives. Ms. Zainal beat two male parliamentarians by winning the support of 25 of the 40 members of the Council of Representatives, which is Parliament’s upper chamber.

In addition, the number of women who ran for Parliament in the most recent elections doubled compared to the previous cycle. A record 41 women were among the 293 candidates that ran for the Council of Representatives. Women have participated in elections since 1951, making Bahrain a leader and a pioneer for women’s rights in the Gulf region.

Bahrain used to have separate courts for family disputes — the Sunni courts and the Shia courts — to reflect the traditional legal differences in each religion. In 2017, the so-called Family Law combined these courts, which has significantly empowered Bahraini women in marriage disputes.

Bahrain’s religious tolerance was tested in 2015, when Daesh terrorists attacked mosques in Shia-majority communities in neighboring countries. In response, the Bahrain government held a joint prayer with both Sunnis and Shiites and increased security for all places of worship.

In July 2017, Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authored the groundbreaking Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration, which calls for an end to religious extremism and makes religious freedom the law of the land in Bahrain.

Last year, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid Al-Khalifa, proudly attended and gave a speech. “Our multi-cultural and multi-denominational society is our core strength and the primary cause of our society’s dynamism,” he said.

Religious freedom is on display everywhere in Bahrain. Churches and temples stand alongside Muslim mosques. Manama, Bahrain’s capital, even boasts the only synagogue in the region and a Jewish cemetery. Hindus worship in a 200-year-old temple, which is around the corner from the Sikh temple. The Gulf region’s largest Catholic Church is under construction there as well.

Bahraini education includes lessons in pluralism and tolerance of religions. The government also has outlawed hate speech and prohibits wage discrimination or termination on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion or creed.

The U.S. State Department will hold its second Religious Ministerial in July and Bahrain hopes to participate. Religious freedom and openness to diversity are real in Bahrain.

• Abdullah Bin Rashid Al Khalifa is the ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United States.

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