Pope stresses Muslim dialogue during first papal visit to Bahrain

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis brings his message of dialogue with the Muslim world to the Kingdom of Bahrain, where the Sunni-led government is holding an interfaith conference on East-West coexistence even as it is accused of discriminating the country. Shiite majority.

Human rights groups and relatives of Shia activists on death row have urged Francis to use his visit, which begins Thursday, to call for an end to the death penalty and political repression in Bahrain. But it is unclear whether Francis will publicly embarrass his hosts during his four-day visit, the first of any pontiff to the Persian Gulf island nation.

The 85-year-old pope, who has been using a wheelchair for several months due to strained knee ligaments, said on Thursday he was in “a lot” of pain as he headed to Bahrain, and greeted reporters for the first time traveling with him. sitting rather than walking down the aisle.

Francis has long touted dialogue as an instrument of peace and believes a show of interfaith harmony is needed, especially now given Russia’s war in Ukraine and regional conflicts, such as in Yemen. On the eve of the trip, Francis asked for prayers that the trip would promote “the cause of fraternity and peace, which our times are in dire and urgent need of.”

The visit is Francis’ second to a Gulf Arab country, following his historic 2019 trip to Abu Dhabi, where he signed a document promoting Catholic-Muslim brotherhood with a prominent Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. Al-Tayeb is the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo. Francis followed this with a visit to Iraq in 2021, where he was received by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistanione of the most prominent Shia clerics in the world.

Francis will meet again this week in Bahrain al-Tayeb, as well as other prominent figures in the interfaith field who are expected to attend the conference, which is similar to the one organized last month by Kazakhstan which Francis and el-Tayeb also attended. Members of the Muslim Regional Council of Elders, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew, a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church and rabbis from the United States are all expected, according to Bahrain’s schedule.

The trip will also allow Francis to minister to the Catholic community in Bahrain, which numbers about 80,000 people in a country of about 1.5 million people. Most are workers from the Philippines and India, although trip organizers expect pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries to attend Francis’ High Mass at the National Stadium on Saturday.

Bahrain is home to the first Catholic church in the Gulf, the Parish of the Sacred Heart, which opened in 1939, as well as its largest, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia. The 2,300-capacity church opened last year in the desert town of Awali on land donated to the church by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. In fact, the king presented Francis with a model of the church when he visited the Vatican in 2014 and issued the first invitation to visit.

Francis will visit both churches during his visit and will likely thank the king for the tolerance the government has long shown towards Christians living in the country, especially compared to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot practice. openly their faith.

“Religious freedom in Bahrain is perhaps the best in the Arab world,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Administrator of Bahrain and Other Arab Gulf Countries. “Even if everything is not ideal, there may be conversions (to Christianity), which are at least not officially punished as in other countries.”

But ahead of his visit to Bahrain, Shia opposition groups and human rights organizations have urged Francis to speak out against human rights abuses against the Shia majority by the Sunni monarchy. They urged him to call for an end to the death penalty and to ask to visit Jau prison in the country, where hundreds of Shiite activists have been imprisoned.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly denounced the use of torture in prisons, as well as the forced confessions and “sham trials” against dissidents.

“We are writing to appeal to you as the families of twelve death row inmates who face imminent execution in Bahrain,” reads a letter from the families to Francis published this week by the Bahrain Institute for rights and democracy. “Our family members remain behind bars and face execution despite the manifest injustice of their beliefs.”

Francis changed church teaching to declare the death penalty impermissible in all cases. He regularly visited prisoners during his trips abroad, although no such prison visit was planned in Bahrain.

The Vatican spokesman declined to say whether Francis would publicly or privately discuss Bahrain’s human rights record during his visit.

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