The conference is the brainchild of MP Olexandr Feldman, president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee
Religious leaders from around the world, representing Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Judaism, will gather at the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (parliament) for one of the sessions of the third annual Kiev Interfaith Forum later this month, despite rising levels of religious intolerance in the former communist nation, organizers told The Jerusalem Post.
Among the attendees will be Teophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem; Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva; Dr Hamid Bin Ahmed Al-Rifaie of Saudi Arabia, who heads the International Islamic Forum For Dialogue and Stein Villumstad, the General Secretary of the European Council of Religious Leaders.
The conference is the brainchild of MP Olexandr Feldman, a legislator affiliated with the ruling Party of Regions faction and the president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.
In an email correspondence with the Post on Wednesday, Feldman stated that the concept of interfaith dialogue was “very new” in his country, where religious life was “in decline and almost destroyed by Communism and the Holocaust.”
“We were able to make leaders of various faiths sit together and to discuss common problems,” he said.
Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church protested outside of last year’s gathering, and Feldman replied that there will “probably” be protests again this year.
Since that time, elections for the Ukrainian parliament were held, in which the farright nationalist Svoboda (freedom) party won 36 seats out of 450, or roughly 8 percent of the total representation in that body.
Svoboda was founded in 2004 and had previously named itself the Social- National Party of Ukraine.
Party leader Oleg Tyagnibok has previously made the accusation that “Ukraine is being controlled by a Russian- Jewish mafia,” according to Irena Cantorovich, a scholar at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Kantor Database for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism.
Asked if he was nervous to hold such an event in a parliament in which physical scuffles are not uncommon and where a rising number of lawmakers are members of a movement accused of being anti-Semitic, the Jewish lawmaker replied that the presence of Svoboda MPs is “not an obstacle” but rather a “challenge.”
“Happily, there are much more good [than bad] people [in] the Ukrainian parliament,” Feldman stated.
In order to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism in his country, he explained, “effective legislation and law-enforcement efforts” will be required, as will “hasbara [public diplomacy] and education starting from kindergartens and schools, universities and offices.”
According to Feldman, members of Svoboda are “actually trying to avoid” him at the parliament and “no threats” have been made against the conference by party members.
He told the Post that he sees the forum as a chance for dialogue, which he believes has the “ability to destroy prejudices,” such as those alleged to be held by the nation’s far Right.
“These efforts are highly needed in Ukraine as well as everywhere in the world,” he asserted.
Ukrainian Jews were “unprepared” and “taken by surprise” by the rise of the Svoboda party, Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, told the Post on Thursday.
“No one expected Svoboda to gain so many seats. Now, we are coming to terms and are ready to fight. Every Jewish community in Ukraine, every Jewish organization, is actually on alert.”
The Interfaith Forum, he said, is “not a Jewish event only, but nevertheless it sends a strong message to Svoboda and other haters that there is a very strong, international movement of various religions against anti-Semitism, that there is no future for such ideology.”