ROME — As Pope Francis departs for the Gulf nation of Bahrain to take part in an international forum for dialogue, he does so amid a chorus of opposition from human rights advocates who argue that the government’s insistence on tolerance is a farce.
Pope Francis, who will be in Bahrain from November 3-6, is the first-ever pope to visit the country, and the trip therefore carries significant weight for the local Catholic community and for a kingdom that wants to cement its image as a forerunner of regional tolerance.
While Catholics are delighted with the visit and eager to welcome their shepherd among them, opponents of the government have expressed skepticism and pleaded with the pope not to allow Bahraini officials to use the visit as a photo op while continuing repressive practices.
Speaking to reporters during a media roundtable last month, Bishop Paul Hinder – vicar emeritus of the Apostolic Vicariate of South Arabia and current administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of North Arabia in Kuwait – said that he believed that Pope Francis would “try to push through as much as possible with the Muslim world.
Bahrain is 70% Muslim, with about two-thirds belonging to the Shia tradition, and one-third, including the Al Khalifa ruling family, belonging to the Sunni tradition, which means that there is a certain “societal tension”, Hinder said.
While religious freedom in Bahrain is among the highest in the Arab world, according to Hinder, some issues are still present. After living in the area for 18 years, Hinder said he learned “to take the diplomatic route” lest anything he says be taken as offensive.
“We who live here must always be careful not to lose our residency in this country,” he said.
Pope Francis is traveling to Bahrain to attend a conference titled “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence,” which is expected to attract other high-level religious leaders, including the Grand Imam of Al- Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb.
The pair were recently in Kazakhstan together for another high-level interfaith summit, and in February 2019 they signed a document on human brotherhood during the Pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi.
Bahrain, although predominantly Muslim, is home to the first Catholic church in the Persian Gulf, which opened in the capital Manama in 1939, as well as its largest, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, which opened last year in the city of Awali and was built on land donated by His Majesty King Hamad.
Pope Francis will visit both cities during his visit.
In addition to attending the forum, the pope is then in Bahrain is also scheduled to meet with King Hamad Al Khalifa and civil authorities, and he will also meet privately with el-Tayeb, and participate in a meeting with members of the Muslim Council of Elders.
He is to participate in an ecumenical prayer for peace and celebrate Mass with the local Catholic community and will organize a meeting with young people in Bahrain. He will also meet bishops, priests and religious before returning to Rome.
According to Hinder, apart from some tensions between families who do not allow conversions, religious freedom is respected in Bahrain and there is no official government sanction for conversions from Islam.
There is also a common interest between the different religions present in the country to protect the environment, and their land, he said, saying he knew “that if there is a conflict between a country with a Christian majority and a country with a Muslim majority, it is a problem for the world”. , not one or two countries.
Hinder expressed his belief that one of the Pope’s goals in Bahrain is to achieve “a common platform” based on the Abu Dhabi Document on Human Fraternity, and that if this can be done, it would be ” an important and valuable step forward”.
“The pope will move forward, even if not everyone in the Catholic Church or the Muslim world agrees, but his courageous steps will open doors,” he said. “We don’t know where it will end, but I hope it will contribute to solutions to conflicts” around the world.
Asked about Bahrain’s use of the death penalty given Pope Francis’ consistent opposition to the practice, Hinder said he was aware there was a difference of opinion, but even as a representative of the pope, “my experience after 18 years is not to give open criticism.
Speaking publicly about points of disagreement or criticizing the government for some of its practices, he said, would be difficult, because while the Western world is used to openly criticizing, “our context is certainly limited.”
It is this limitation that many Bahraini activists have challenged, accusing the government of trying to muzzle any form of dissent or opposition.
For years, pro-democracy activists have challenged what they have described as the Al Khalifa family dictatorship, accusing the Bahraini government under the king’s orders of various human rights abuses such as political arrests and acts of torture.
Activists say rights such as freedom of speech and assembly are virtually non-existent and have accused the ruling Al Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims, of discriminating against the country’s Shia majority. They also accused the government of prisoner mistreatment, saying that in addition to torture, aging detainees were denied routine medical care.
Many activists were arrested during the 2011 uprisings, including Hassan Mashaima, 73, who is one of the most prominent of the so-called “Bahrain Thirteen”, which refers to 13 opposition leaders, activists, bloggers and Bahraini Shia clerics who have been arrested. between March 17 and April 9, 2011, in connection with their role in nationwide pro-democracy protests led that year by the country’s Shia majority at the height of the region’s “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Many activists and advocacy groups have spoken out ahead of Pope Francis’ visit, calling on him to either pull out of the trip or publicly condemn what they say are human rights abuses by the government during his stay. in Bahrain.
In a letter to the pope from BIRD (Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy), the organization’s director, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, expressed concern that King Hamad “will exploit your trip to try to legitimize his discrimination systematically against the majority of the population of Bahrain”. and whitewashing his government’s international image over its repressive human rights record.
He accused the king of arbitrary detentions, torture, executions and even child abuse, saying his ‘hands are soaked in the blood of his own citizens’ and it would be ‘heartbreaking’ for the families of political prisoners And the dead. Row inmates to see the Pope shake hands with the King.
Alwadaei said he was also tortured by officials and exiled after participating in protests in 2011, and had his citizenship revoked in 2013, “rendering me stateless in a flagrant violation of international law”.
The United Nations cited his case in its concerns about Bahrain’s human rights record, Alwadaei said, and accused the government of “systematic discrimination” against the Shia Muslim community, which he said is intensified after the 2011 protests.
“I believe that a king who suppresses his own people and systematically discriminates against the Shia population cannot be a legitimate voice for religious freedom and coexistence,” he said, and asked the pope to abstain. to shake hands with the king and be “open”. and outspoken” about government wrongdoing.
Another activist who spent more than nine years in prison, Ali Al-Hajee, 39, also wrote a letter to Pope Francis saying he was a victim of torture, and that the use of “undue force” to suppressing the 2011 protests had “a negative impact on the social fabric and human coexistence” in the country.
Calling himself a “prisoner of conscience”, Al-Hajee said his only crime was participating in a peaceful protest and that his confession was obtained under duress through the use of torture. He said he also suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison and that Shia Muslims were not allowed to perform religious ceremonies in groups.
He urged the Pope to tell the King of Bahrain to “respect the peace” and release all political prisoners.
In a letter to the Pope from the families of 12 death row inmates, they described the treatment of their loved ones, saying their trials “involved serious violations of international law” and that the death sentences they had received were from “sham trials based solely or primarily on confessions allegedly obtained under duress through torture and ill-treatment”.
Referring to a report by BIRD and Human Rights Watch, the families said the death row inmates were subjected to “electric shocks to the chest and genitals, sleep deprivation, beatings and to attempted rape.
“Their trials cannot be considered fair, but they have exhausted all legal remedies and, with a stroke of the pen from King Hamad, they could be sent to the firing squad,” they said, and expressed the hope that the pope would reiterate his condemnation of the death penalty in Bahrain.
Yet as activists formulate their demands, enthusiasm for the Pope’s visit is mounting among Bahrain’s Catholics, the majority of whom are foreigners.
Regarding his own expectations for the visit, Hinder said he believed the pope would continue the process of dialogue and promotion of human brotherhood that he had begun in Abu Dhabi, and had continued through many trips since.
“I think the pope’s intention is to open our minds, to make us understand that it is absolutely necessary to find relationships of mutual respect and collaboration in areas where it is possible,” he said. he says, asserting that no matter how small Bahrain is, people will always hear the pope’s message.
Catholics, he said, are happy that the pope is coming and “feel recognized as a small herd without power, but we exist. The fact that the Pope comes to celebrate with us, for us, it is not possible for people from outside to understand the moral value, the human and religious value,” he said.
As Pope Francis visits Bahrain, he will have to manage not only his desire to support the country’s small Catholic community and promote regional dialogue, but also the growing chorus of voices saying this is not possible with the leadership. current, and calling for it to be expressed.
For a pope who practices the diplomacy of dialogue and who strives to cement Catholic-Muslim ties, but who also defends the oppressed and prisoners, Pope Francis will have a lot to balance in the days to come.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen