Imams and other senior Muslim religious leaders from a number of central African states arrived in Israel Sunday for a landmark four-day visit, as the Jewish state continues to strengthen ties with African nations.
The Muslim leaders hailed from six different countries – the Republic of South Sudan, Zambia, Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia – and were hosted by senior Israeli officials. The African delegates also serve as leaders of their respective communities, and as such are influential political players in their countries.
On Monday, the group met with Foreign Ministry Director General Dr. Dore Gold, who hailed the burgeoning relations between Israel and Africa and noted that Prime Minister Netanyahu plans to visit Africa this year.
"Israel is coming back to Africa; Africa is coming back to Israel," Gold said, quoting the PM during a recent launch of the Knesset's new Africa Caucus.
"I am pleased that you will have the opportunity to see the situation in Israel first-hand," he added.
Gold, who hosted the delegation as official guests of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, recounted his recent visit to South Africa. Ironically, given the strong support for the anti-Israel BDS Movement in South Africa – which attempts to equate Israel with the apartheid regime as part of a campaign to advocate an international boycott of the Jewish state – he recalled noting that South Africa can in fact learn a lot from Israel about coexistence.
"I have just returned from a visit to South Africa. There I witnessed apartheid, with separate hospitals for whites and blacks," he said.
In contrast, Israeli hospitals – as with all Israeli public institutions – do not discriminate in any way.
"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 of our enemies, but we treat them as a humanitarian mission of the first order."
Israel has of late embarked on a campaign to strengthen once-strong ties with the African continent, based on mutual interests including battling Islamic terrorism, combating drought and cooperating in the fields of technology and medicine.
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry emphasized the importance of a strategic alliance between Israel and Africa.
"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," the statement read. "These meetings could serve as a stabilizing factor and boost Israel's connection to these sectors of African society."
The delegation, in Israel from 13-17 March, 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. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, "the visit aims to familiarize the visitors with socio-political aspects of Israel; to generate an interreligious, intercultural dialogue; and to explore possibilities for economic and agricultural development cooperation."
They also met with the Israeli Chief Rabbis to discuss coexistence, and are receiving diplomatic and strategic briefings from top officials, as well as touring the country's religious sites, including in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Acco.