In another step towards the warming of Israel’s renewed relations with Africa, six African religious leaders are visiting the Jewish State for a close-up look at its open democracy and free society.

Imams and other Muslim religious leaders from six central African states arrived in Israel on Monday for a four-day visit to familiarize themselves with Israel’s socio-political aspects, to generate an interreligious, intercultural dialogue and to explore possibilities for economic and agricultural development cooperation.

The delegation’s visit is of “high strategic importance with regional implications and media impact beyond the states represented by the delegates,” Israel’s foreign ministry stated.

“In most cases, the Muslim religious leaders serve also as community leaders and have broad political influence; their visit will contribute to strengthening the diplomatic ties between Israel and Africa,” the statement read.

The visit includes meetings with senior Israeli officials, diplomatic and strategic briefings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meetings at the Knesset; meetings with Israel’s chief rabbis on the subject of coexistence, a visit to the holy sites of the three religions, including Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and tours of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa and Acre – cities that serve as models for interreligious coexistence in Israel.

The visit was arranged by the Africa Division and the World Jewish and Interreligious Affairs Bureau of the Israel Foreign Ministry, in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

“At the present time, when African states are confronting threats from Islamic jihadist terrorism, we attach prime importance to meetings with moderate Muslim religious leaders. These meetings could serve as a stabilizing factor and boost Israel’s connection to these sectors of African society,” the foreign minister stated.

Foreign Ministry Director General Dr. Dore Gold, met with the delegation on their arrival.

“I am pleased that you will have the opportunity to see the situation in Israel first-hand,” Gold told the group. “I have just returned from a visit to South Africa. There I witnessed a place where apartheid existed in the past, with separate hospitals for whites and blacks. I invite you to visit Hadassah Hospital, where you can see the staff and patients, Jews and Arabs side by side. We also established a field hospital in the Golan Heights to treat wounded Syrians. They are by definition our enemies, but we treat them as a humanitarian mission of the first order.”

The delegation numbers nine leading Muslim religious figures from the Republic of South Sudan, Zambia, Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Interreligious dialogue holds a central place on Israel’s diplomatic agenda in Africa. Israel’s ambassadors to Africa are involved in activities to strengthen ties with the Muslim community.

This is not the first such visit by African imams to Israel. Delegations of Senegalese imams and senior clergy visited Israel in 2013 and 2014.

The visits were viewed as a great success by the Israelis. The foreign ministry says the visitors returned to their country “with high motivation to strengthen diplomatic ties with Israel and improve Israel’s public image through the media and academia. Long after the delegation returned, the media continued to portray Israel as a multifaceted and open society.”

By: Max Gelber, United with Israel

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