Pope to meet Sunni authorities on ‘dialogue’ trip to Bahrain

Published on:

Manama (AFP) – Pope Francis will meet the top authority on Sunni Islam on Friday during a visit to Bahrain aimed at boosting dialogue but marred by accusations of rights abuses in the Gulf state.

The pontiff landed in the tiny island kingdom on Thursday afternoon, delivering a speech criticizing the use of the death penalty and urging nations to uphold human rights and provide better conditions for working people.

Rights groups had previously called on the pope to speak out against alleged abuses in the Sunni-led monarchy, which is home to a large Shia population.

Speaking to dignitaries including his host King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, said religious freedom should be “comprehensive and not limited to the freedom of worship”.

On Friday, the 85-year-old pope, who uses a wheelchair due to chronic knee problems, plans to meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar Mosque and center of Sunni learning.

The pontiff’s 39th international trip since taking office comes three years after he signed a Muslim-Christian manifesto for peace in the United Arab Emirates during the first papal visit to the Gulf region, where Islam was born .

The Argentine has placed interreligious dialogue at the heart of his pontificate, visiting other Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Iraq.

The visit to Bahrain, where he will also participate in a forum with the Abu Dhabi-based Muslim Council of Elders, is no exception.

But before his trip, rights groups and the families of Bahraini prisoners on death row urged him to address the alleged violations.

“dehumanizing” work

In the first speech of his visit, at the lavish royal palace of Sakhir, he said it was vital that “basic human rights are not violated but promoted”.

“I am thinking first of all of the right to life, of the need to always guarantee this right, including for those who are punished, whose life must not be taken away,” he said.

Bahrain has executed six people since 2017, when it carried out its first execution in seven years. Some of the convicts were found guilty following a 2011 uprising that was put down with support from the Saudi military.

A government spokesman dismissed claims of rights violations, saying Bahrain “does not tolerate discrimination” and does not prosecute anyone based on their religious or political beliefs.

Speaking less than three weeks before the World Cup in neighboring Qatar, which is under intense scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers, the pope also demanded that “working conditions everywhere be safe and dignified “.

Children wave flags as they welcome the pope outside the royal palace in Awali, south of the Bahraini capital Manama, on November 3, 2022. Marco BERTORELLOAFP

“A lot of work is actually dehumanizing,” he said. “This not only entails a serious risk of social instability, but poses a threat to human dignity.”

Pope Francis, after being lowered from the plane in his wheelchair onto an electric platform, received an enthusiastic welcome on Thursday.

Uniformed guards on horseback, along with Vatican and Bahraini flags, lined the route of his short journey to the gleaming white marble palace, where he was greeted by cheering children.

As well as attending the forum and meeting the grand imam, the pope will also hold prayers in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church on the Arabian Peninsula, followed by an open-air mass on Saturday.