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Religious tolerance is built by getting to know others, a clarification that their diversity is not a threat to us or our religious beliefs.
A few weeks ago, the Macedonian public was informed of the arrival of the Jewish religious group Lev Tahor (Open Heart) in Kumanovo. This group that is traveling through Macedonia would not have caused a reaction among the local population, nor in the public, if it were not for two moments.
First, the very controversy of this religious group, which is characterized as a “sect” that practices Judaism in a fundamentalist form, and second, the violent reactions of the people towards them.
Bad reputation has been following this group for some time. The accusations and the prison sentences handed down to their leaders for forced underage marriages, child molestation, and child abduction have reached the Macedonian citizens as well. However, the violence and intolerance of our fellow citizens towards this religious group was something that was totally unnecessary.
According to Macedonian law, they have a maximum stay of three months in Macedonia and that stay was approved by our institutions because they said that they are only traveling through the country without intention to stay longer than the period that is legally allowed. They were in Sarajevo, in the Ilidza neighborhood, where they were also not accepted. Religious intolerance is somehow deeply rooted in the people of the Balkans, although we like to brag that we are hospitable and open-hearted people.
On the other hand, this religious group has predominantly consisted of children and some adults (18 children and 19 adults). In their statements in front of the television cameras, they clearly stated that they do not intend to stay in the country and are looking for a country that will accept them and where they can freely practice their religion.
Who are Lev Tahor?
This religious group was established in the late 1980s, practicing Judaism in a fundamental way, compared to Judaism practiced in Israel. Judaism is practiced in Israel by 4 religious groups: Haredi (ultra-orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional), and Hiloni (secular). The differences between these religious groups are not only in the belief in the existence of God (40% of secular Hiloni do not believe in the existence of God) but also in the political views.
The ultra-orthodox Haredi do not even serve in the military, while the Dati group is more inclined to Zionism and believes that the Arabs should be expelled from Israel. Lev Tahor, judging by the dressing, inclines towards ultra-orthodox Jews, especially in the clothing of men, while women are a-typically dressed completely in black, which also applies to female children.
However, their practice of religion is more extreme than that of ultra-orthodox Jews, their prayers are loud and long, and they have a limited diet imposed by their founder, Shlomo Helbran (they do not eat chicken because they believe the chicken is genetically modified and is not the same as the one created by God).
Their leader and founder Helbran was persecuted in the United States (where he founded the sect) for kidnapping a child, preaching the destruction of Israel, citing alleged Bible texts and was suspected of collaborating with Islamic fundamentalist groups.
With the persecution of their leader, they moved to Guatemala as a religious sect, and later came to the Balkans. Their difference in practicing Judaism can also be seen in the fact that during their stay in Macedonia, they were not contacted by the Macedonian Jewish community.
And what about our intolerance?
By definition, religious tolerance is the acceptance of the religious differences of another religious group and respect for their religious beliefs in all areas of society. This religious group has not experienced that from our fellow citizens in Macedonia. On the contrary, the videos showed the reactions of our fellow citizens who were quite aggressive and with unjustified fear, and they proved once again that our religious patience and tolerance are at a low level.
On the one hand, the fear of the citizens of this group is understandable due to the information that is spread about them, especially of the fellow citizens from the Ohrid village of Gorno Lakocherej where this group moved to after Kumanovo. But on the other hand, the facts are not known.
They are in North Macedonia legally, under police surveillance, they do not preach their beliefs, they are not violent, and they are calm and quiet. The statement of one of the members of this group in front of the camera was that it is difficult for them to travel with their children, let alone to kidnap other people’s children, should have a slightly sobering effect on the citizens.
Religious intolerance is also based on ignorance of other religious groups and their characteristics. How much do people in North Macedonia know about Islam and their neighbors? A little more than they know about Judaism, but only because they have Muslim neighbors. How much do we know about Hinduism or Buddhism?
People only know about other religions if they have shown interest in reading and getting to know other religions, and such a practice is not very common among Macedonian citizens. In their primary education they have teaching subjects of Ethics of Religions and Introduction to Religions that are taught in sixth grade. But in this case, the children were not the ones who expressed intolerance and aggression towards another religious group – it was the adults.
Lack of knowledge of other religions and lack of desire to find out more about them, at least the basics, creates fear and impatience. On the one hand, the fear of citizens due to the controversy of this group is understandable, but violence is not the answer, especially if the group does not violate any law, nor endanger someone’s life.
The religious intolerance in Macedonia is eradicated by education and learning about religions not only in the education system but also through institutions (police, religious institutions). Macedonians have a practice of acquiring their education through dubious and obscure articles found on the Internet and social media that are fertile ground for the spread of hatred and violence.
They have not made progress in the religious tolerance within the society with the first neighbors belonging to other religions, much less can we understand other religions with which we had no contact. That fact was further confirmed by the case of Lev Tahor.
Religious tolerance is established by getting to know others, explaining that others and their diversity are not a threat to us or to our religious beliefs. Religious leaders also play an important role in this type of education of our citizens because they are the first to point out the diversity that exists and the tolerance that they preach, if their followers do not practice that.
Religious tolerance should also be focused on atheists and agnostics. As long as we are religiously locked in our folds and do not open up ourselves to something new, and based on that ignorance we build fears and show out aggression, we will have cases like Lev Tahor.
The first step is to acknowledge that we are religiously intolerant, and the steps to address that situation are well known – education, discussions, getting to know new things.
Author: Sonja Stojadinovic
Photo: Oleg Ivanov IL/ Shutterstock