We were part of a group of theologians from the Americas working to facilitate interreligious dialogue between the different factions in Macedonia. We had among us a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, a Jewish theologian and a Methodist theologian (that would be my dad). Me? I was along for the ride.
We met separately with the Orthodox leadership and the Islamic leadership. One morning the Jewish leadership joined us for breakfast in the basement of our hotel (Hotel Bimbo - named after the proprietor's child's favorite cartoon character, Bimbo the Elephant). The Catholics refused to even speak with us on the phone.
Skopje is a divided city. A river runs through it's center, and for many centuries that river was the border of the Turkish Empire. The muslims (primarily ethnic Albanians) live on one side of the river. The orthodox (primarily ethnic Macedonians) live on the other side.
Two meetings were arranged between the Orthodox and the Muslims. The first was held in the Macedonian part of the city, at the Orthodox Seminary. This was the first time Muslim clergy would be permitted on the grounds. The second was held in the Albanian part of the city, at the Islamic Theological School. Again, a first. This time the younger students were also encouraged to attend - budding Islamic scholars in their mid-twenties, male and female. Some of the women wore burkas, but not all did.
Macedonian national television broadcast the meeting live.
It was historic, really. The Orthodox and Muslim leadership were sitting down, in public, and telling each other and the world what they had in common, and that they should working together for the common good of all the people, regardless of ethnicity or religious belief.
The next day we, along with the country's Muslim, Orthodox and Jewish leadership, sat down with the President of Macedonia and told him what was happening. Again, there were television cameras, and reporters. The President agreed to fund a facility in which these meetings could continue. He made a barely-related statement about education, directed as a soundbyte to the cameras, that Albanian and Macedonian children must go to the same schools. That, he said, is how we come to realize our similarities - by growing up together.
The most fascinating person that I met during that trip was a man named Ismail Bardhi. He was the Dean of the Islamic Theological School. A small, intense man with a pointed goatee, he still radiated a calm that I've rarely seen. He spoke well and gently, and addressed everyone directly and personally. When he spoke with you, you had his entire attention.
When I hear people tell of the beauty of the Islamic faith, he is who I think of. He is the one person I have met who embodies all that is best in that faith.
In 2004 he was one of the most powerful men in Macedonia.
In the subsequent years, as the radical elements of Islam have used American foreign policy to foster their growth in strength around the world, he was removed from his position and blacklisted from any teaching posts, and has been unable to find a job of any sort in Macedonia (the country still has 60% unemployment). This semester, he's teaching at a Hebrew university in Los Angeles and living in a one-room efficiency apartment. His contract there runs out at the end of the semester.