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At U.N. Forum, Balkan Leaders Pledge to Respect Minority Rights

September 4, 2003
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In response to an appeal from a New York rabbi, the presidents of eight Balkan republics have agreed to eliminate racist references from textbooks used in their respective countries.

At a “Dialogue Among Civilizations” conference held last week under the aegis of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, UNESCO and the president of Macedonia, the presidents agreed that their countries’ ministers of education will meet next year to strike the references from their textbooks.

The agreement came in response to a request from Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the U.S.-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

Yet despite the leaders’ good will, there was plenty of evidence at the conference that the situation in parts of the Balkans differs markedly from the lofty sentiments expressed here.

The Aug. 29-30 meeting, which included government representatives from more than 20 countries as well as the personal representative of U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan, marked the first time that the heads of all the nations of former Yugoslavia and surrounding states had met under international auspices.

The final statement adopted and endorsed by all the Balkan presidents showed how far the region has come since the murderous Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s.

The statement pledged the countries to create places where “people can jointly rediscover the stimulating wealth of differences, cultural exchanges and interaction as well as their multiple identities.”

But interaction between the various peoples in the Balkans is still plagued by violence.

Earlier this month, two Serbian children were shot dead by unknown gunmen presumed to be ethnic Albanian guerrillas. That led the president of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, to issue a call at the summit for urgent talks with the United Nations and NATO on protecting the Serb minority in Kosovo from attacks by Albanian irregulars.

During the forum, the conference’s host, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, was embarrassed when unknown assailants — also believed to be ethnic Albanian fighters — set off small bombs near three government buildings in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, 100 miles from the site of the forum.

No one was injured in those attacks, but they made clear how tenuous Macedonia’s recovery is from 2001 violence between government troops and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, which left hundreds dead.

The forum was the first of several planned regional follow-ups to the first Dialogue among Civilizations Forum held at the United Nations in 2000.

The Vienna-born Schneier, longtime spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue in New York, said it was natural for the Appeal of Conscience Foundation to co- sponsor the forum, given the organization’s role in bringing together top Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim leaders from the former Yugoslavia and surrounding areas on four separate occasions during the 1990s to denounce then- ongoing warfare and ethnic cleansing.

Founded in 1965, the foundation promotes religious freedom, human rights and tolerance around the world.

Together with the other leading members of the foundation — Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington; and the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, of the Orthodox Church in America — Schneier held separate meetings with each of the presidents at the event.

In his own speech to the conference, Schneier said that those attending did so “in defiance of the would-be wreckers of the international order” who carried out recent suicide bombings in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Bombay.

He also urged conference participants “not to allow the enemies of peace and justice to smash our patient efforts to promote dialogue and coexistence and to nurture reconciliation among peoples and nations that once feared and hated each other.”

If the Balkan peoples are to ensure that the ethnic conflicts of the past decade do not return, Schneier said, it’s critical that newspapers, radio, television and the Internet must be mobilized to prevent a resurgence of nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

“For me, this is about tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, Schneier said, explaining what drives him to convene a conference unrelated to Jewish issues. “By presiding over an international forum wearing a kipah, quoting biblical text and speaking as a survivor of the Holocaust, I am representing the image of a Jew who is without an inferiority complex and who is committed to the welfare of all mankind.”

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