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Petrit Selimi: Unsung Interfaith Hero

06/04/2015 11:16 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

For every leader who claims more credit than he or she deserves, there is another who does more than could be hoped but does not seem to seek credit at all. One who is helping to pave a new path for Kosovo, and perhaps the entire Balkans, is Kosovo's Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi. He has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to heal religious and ethnic wounds and re-envision interfaith relations both within the troubled region and beyond.

Just this past weekend, I returned from the fourth annual Interfaith Kosovo conference, which has long been his brainchild and since spun off into an organization of its own. It now holds programs and gatherings throughout the country and throughout the year. The one-off experiment that he facilitated through the Foreign Ministry is becoming a mainstay of the country, as it seeks to refocus its energies from a painful past to a hopeful future.

So, too, is Selimi's leadership role evident at the Holocaust Memorial which stands tall next to Kosovo's Parliament -- the only one in the Balkans naming Jews specifically and first memorial at the seat of government in this "Newborn" country.

So, too, is it felt in his fearless defense of diplomatic treaties with Serbia: sixteen agreements in the last three years with the majority Serbian Orthodox Christian country whose government not so long ago had been in an all-out conflict with Kosovo's ethnically Albanian and primarily Muslim inhabitants. Even when fellow Kosovars sometimes express surprise or distress at Selimi's willingness to find areas of collaboration with Kosovo's former arch-foes, he continues on for the sake of peace and his country's long-term interests.

So, too, is it felt in the book he co-edited about the destruction of Muslim holy sites in Kosovo. It does not spout vitriol or provide historical pretext for renewed ethnic conflict, but instead reinforces the hope that can come through interfaith collaboration -- particularly when reflecting on the dire costs of conflict along religious and ethnic lines.

But most of all, it is felt in the way he lives out his life.

Deputy Foreign Minister Selimi came to stand at my side as a group of Millennial Jews from New York's Tribe delegation joined other conference participants to welcome in the Shabbat this past Friday evening. He hadn't come for a photo opportunity or because many had joined us. He came because he genuinely loved the idea that Kosovo could become a center of interfaith collaboration and the pluralistic practice of religious traditions. He came because he lives out his values. He came because he cares about Jews and sees the possible parallels between their history and that of Kosovars.

As our group concluded its prayers welcoming the Sabbath and blessing the bountiful meal that we would soon enjoy, he raised his glass of wine and said "L'chiam," to life, to all who had gathered. He then turned and kissed me on both cheeks, embracing me with great strength.

He could then have left, and we still would have been moved by his decision to join us. But he didn't. He stayed to talk for much of the evening. We spent a couple of hours together that night connecting, reflecting, laughing, and enjoying the moment of peace that the evening brought in the midst of such a busy, vibrant and full conference. There was no political need or advantage that he gained from giving of his time and his heart. Selimi was just being himself -- the same authentic self he had been when I first met him two years ago at the same conference; the same authentic self he had been when we met for coffee at Café Reggio in New York and received with joy a copy of my senior rabbi's book, The Gift of Grief. The same authentic person who acts behind the scenes to repair interfaith relations in a region that sorely needs such healing.

Selimi is a quiet presence within Kosovo and around the region. A decade ago, Time magazine did a profile of him and recognized him to be a person of "political smarts and a gift for translating big ideas into concrete action." He is still known more by leaders for what he gets done behind the scenes than by the public for press conferences and proclamations. But his noble actions could help reshape the Balkans and turn Kosovo into a model for interfaith harmony. It remains a stretch to be entirely optimistic about interfaith relations in the region. But it does not feel like a stretch to become optimistic about the efforts of such an unsung interfaith hero. Indeed, they are worthy of greater note and praise.