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Venetia van Kuffeler meets with representatives of The King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Co-existence

“As Bahrainis, we drew from our national heritage as a beacon of religious tolerance in the Arab World during a time when religion has been too frequently used throughout the world as a divine sanction to spread hate…”

King Hamad wrote in the Washington Times

I’D BEEN SUMMONED to the BahrainEmbassy to meet representatives of the Board of Trustees from the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Co-existence. Comprised of representatives of the spectrum of religions and beliefs in Bahrain, the idea is that these people are ambassadors of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence around the world. I wasn’t sure who I was meeting or what to expect. As it happened, by the end of our time together there were close to 20 people in the room, of various faiths and nationalities found in Bahrain.  One thing certainly unified them: they were passionate about their cause…

It all began with ‘This is Bahrain,’ an NGO of Bahrainis and expatriates that started its journey in London in 2014.  Its objectives were to share the true picture of everyday life in the Kingdom. Deputy Chair of the Centre Betsy B Mathieson says: “The fact is, in Bahrain we have lived together as one big family in peaceful coexistence for many hundreds of years. ‘This is Bahrain’ wanted to share this with the world…” But what’s it all really about?


As it emerges, King Hamad’s Global Centre for Peaceful Co-existence is the gradual progression of various initiatives over the decades. A nation comprising more than 30 islands in the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain has been at the centre of major trade routes since antiquity, hence its diversity.  A Jewish man living in the predominantly Muslim state, Ibrahim Dawood Nonoo explains: “The presence of different religious faiths in Bahrain is not something new. There are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews all living next door to each other.” Nonoo’s family arrived in Bahrain in 1905 and have lived there ever since. “I was born there,” said Nonoo, “and my religious faith has never been a problem. I am Bahraini before anything else.”

But why is Bahrain such a shining example for the rest of the world to follow? They explain that Bahrain is the only country in the Arabian Gulf with a synagogue. A pearl trader built the synagogue in the 1920s, and the Jewish community has been there ever since. So too, Hindus can worship in a 200-year-old temple, just around the corner from the Sikh temples and various mosques.

Member of the Shura Council Hala Ramzy Fayez says: “Given that we are situated in a region rife with religious and sectarian tensions, Bahrain takes pride in its religious diversity.” Betsy continues, “We celebrate our cultural diversity, freedom of religion and the fact that multiculturalism not only survives but thrives in Bahrain at a time when many countries are faced with growing xenophobia and racial and religious tensions. It is important to share our experience as a small island, and as a rich example of co-existence.”


King Hamad insisted that the project began in schools educating children about coexistence, peace and unity. Out of the work of ‘This is Bahrain,’ the King Hamad Chair in Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence was launched at Sapienza University in Rome. A pioneering academic approach, this Chair is based on His Majesty’s philosophy of ‘ignorance as the enemy of peace.’ Betsy explains: “The objective of the chair is to have young people from all over the world – of all nationalities, faiths and cultures – come together to study His Majesty’s visionary philosophy and the Bahraini model of peaceful coexistence.”


“The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration is a call for leaders and for the masses, and it calls upon clerics and clergy, rulers and presidents, and regular citizens to do all within our power to ensure that religious faith is a blessing to all mankind and the foundation for peace in the world.”

King Hamad wrote in the Washington Times

To spread the message on an international level, the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration was first issued last September in Los Angeles. Since then, the Declaration ‘calling for religious freedom and peaceful coexistence for all people of the world’ has been presented to several world leaders. Betsy remarks: “As you can imagine, it took us about year to come up with the final document, in consultation with leaders of the three main Abrahamic faiths and all other religion and faith-based communities.”


“Bahrain is stronger because of our diversity… The beauty of these differences [is] how they can teach us many lessons, including the lesson of religious tolerance.”

King Hamad wrote in the Washington Times

The board members explain that the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence is the “jewel in the crown of His Majesty’s global vision.” A soon-to-be purpose-built facility on land gifted by the King, it will hold international conferences, seminars and dialogues, act as a mediation centre, host visiting and residential academics for research programmes, and offer internships and study exchange programmes to students of the King Hamad Chair. Its objectives are to maintain peaceful co-existence within Bahraini Society; to improve on it and create dialogue within it and to demonstrate Bahrain’s multicultural success to the outside world.

Betsy remarks: “The Centre is a natural progression from the King Hamad Chair, and the Kingdom Declaration. So, the King Hamad Global Centre will be representing His Majesty’s projects and spreading the message.” Dr Mohamed Ali Hasan Ali, a member of the Shura Council says: “We have always taken Bahrain’s situation for granted, but given the context of the region, we have learnt that it is something to celebrate, strengthen and enforce. So that is the main motivation of the Hamad Centre.”

The group has been heartened by the level of interest in the UK from people in government, think tanks, educational institutes, and from religious leaders who are keen to find ways to work together. Including a Buddhist monk, a Jewish businessman, chic women members of the Shura Council and the Hindu holy man all led by the formidable British-born expat Betsy, the group make quite an impact. After our meeting, the group went to Windsor Castle at the invitation of the Duke of York, and the King Hamad Global Centre’s first International Interfaith Partnership was signed, solidifying connections between two royal houses of Al Khalifa and Windsor. HRH The Duke of York said: “We all should learn from the Bahrain model of peaceful coexistence, which has set a big example for the rest of the world.”

Betsy concludes, “We have waited all these years for politicians to find a solution to the conflicts in our region, and we can’t wait any longer. It’s time to talk and listen to each other.”



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