I had the privilege of attending a wonderful interfaith conference in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo last week, with over 300 people from more than 50 countries around the world. It was an inspiring experience in a small new country, which is committed to religious tolerance and pluralism in a world that is torn by more and more religious intolerance and extremism. Indeed, combatting religious extremism was the main theme of the conference.
How did this come about?
A few years ago, I attended a small interreligious conference with about 30-40 people in Finland during which I met many fascinating new people from all over the world, and had a chance to enter into genuine dialogue with many of them, especially during the coffee breaks, the meals, and in the Finnish sauna in the evening! One of the people whom I was fortunate to meet at that time was Mr. Petrit Selimi, then the Deputy Foreign Minister of the new state of Kosovo.
Kosovo, a small state in the Balkans, used to be part of Serbia until a horrible war from 1997-1999 in which ethnic Albanian Muslim citizens were systematically murdered and more than 1 million became refugees. As a result of this attempt at ethnic cleansing, the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević was later tried and convicted (posthumously) for war crimes by the International Court of the Hague. After the war ended in 1999, thanks to intensive American-led NATO bombing of Serbia, initiated by President Bill Clinton ( who is a national hero in Kosovo, with a statue of him on the main street of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, where this conference was held), the country was ruled by a UN administration until it declared independence in 2008.
One of the most remarkable things that I learned about this young country during my three days there last week was that seventy percent of the people of Kosovo are below the age of 30! You can feel the youthful vibrancy in the streets and the Deputy Foreign Minister Mr. Selimi, who is in his mid-thirties, is representative of this youthful spirit. In a private conversation, he told me it was after the conference in Helsinki where we met 6 years ago, that he decided to initiate an annual interfaith conference in Kosovo (and he flattered me by telling me that I was one of his inspirations for this idea). He and his young Interfaith Kosovo Team started with 28 participants 5 years ago, and by this year, the conference grew to more than 350 people from all over the world, including and especially many from Kosovo itself.
Why did he establish this conference? In an interview in the beautiful conference booklet prepared by his team, he said:
We founded the 'Interfaith Kosovo' initiative with a dual aim: to promote and reinforce Kosovo's experience in conflict resolution and inter-communal reconciliation, as well as to engage in interfaith dialogue as a tool of public diplomacy, to show the unknown feature of Kosovo to the outside world, of a society with great diversity and historic tolerance among religions.
I was pleased to be part of this amazing experience, along with Noa Mazor, who is the incoming director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) , now a department of Rabbis for Human Rights, and David Goodman, who coordinates "Microphones for Peace", a joint project of ICCI and Central Jerusalem Radio. In addition to hearing some powerful speakers--including Dr. Ms. Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel laureate from Iran and Mrs. Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Yemen (the first Yemini and the first Arab woman to have received the prize) -- I listened to many speakers at important panel discussions, and was a panelist for one of the forums of the conference which dealt with case studies of various countries. At this panel, I presented some of the best practices--as well as some of the challenges and obstacles to success--of my work with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel-- during the past 25 years, and I was pleased to receive some valuable feedback to my presentation from people in the room from different parts of the world.
The overall theme of this year's conference was "The Role of Women in Promoting Interfaith Dialogue and Countering Violent Extremism". Indeed, violent extremism has become a pressing problem in many places in the world, not just in Israel and Palestine. It was interesting to learn--from women and from men-- about the many innovative projects and programs in many countries which are doing their best to combat violent extremism, including and especially in Kosovo. It is useful sometimes--at international conferences such as this one--to realize that you are not alone and that you work in common cause with people around the world.
We in Israel will continue to do our part in this vital work for peace, in concert with others who share our vision for a better future for humanity. As I told the participants in the panel discussion in which I spoke:
Peaceful Coexistence is our Goal. Dialogue, Education and Action are our methods.
We will do so in cooperation with many colleagues and organizations around the world, as well as in Israel and Palestine.