Pope Francis has arrived in Bahrain on his first trip to the Gulf nation, calling for an end to discrimination and human rights violations.
It is vital that “fundamental human rights are not violated but promoted”, the pope said on Thursday at the Sakhir royal palace following his arrival in the Gulf Arab state, where the Shia Muslim opposition and rights groups accuse the Sunni monarchy of overseeing human rights abuses, a charge authorities deny.
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Religious freedom should be “complete and not limited to freedom of worship”, he said.
The pope was welcomed by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
The visit is Pope Francis’s second to a Gulf Arab country, following his 2019 landmark trip to Abu Dhabi, where he signed a document promoting Catholic-Muslim fraternity with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. Al-Tayeb is the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
The pontiff will meet again this week in Bahrain with al-Tayeb, as well as other prominent interfaith figures.
The trip will also allow the pope to minister to Bahrain’s Catholic community, which numbers around 80,000 in a country of around 1.5 million.
Most are workers hailing from the Philippines and India, though trip organisers expect pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries will attend the pope’s big Mass at the national stadium on Saturday.
After arriving in Bahrain, the 85-year-old pontiff said, “Let us guarantee that working conditions everywhere are safe and dignified.”
Bahrain is home to the Gulf’s first Catholic Church, the Sacred Heart parish, which opened in 1939, as well as its biggest one, Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral.
The pope will visit both churches during his visit and is likely to thank the king for the tolerance the government has long shown Christians living in the country.
Journalists on the papal plane from Rome reported that the Argentine pontiff did not talk to the press during the flight as normal because of a knee problem.
This is the first-ever visit by a pope to Bahrain, a Shia-majority island nation off the Arabian peninsula.
Bahrain’s government has been repeatedly criticised for human rights abuses.
Human rights groups and relatives of Shia activists on death row have urged the pope to use his visit to call for an end to the death penalty and political repression in Bahrain.
In 2011, Shia-led opposition activists staged protests across the country demanding reforms in the Sunni-led kingdom. But the ruling Al Khalifa family responded by cracking down on dissent and sought the help of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to help crush the unrest.
Since the uprising, Bahrain has outlawed opposition parties and arrested dozens of activists, sparking international criticism.
There have been reports of torture and forced confessions in death penalty cases, some involving political prisoners accused of “terrorism”.
Bahrain rejects allegations of human rights violations. The kingdom has claimed that Iran trained and backed the demonstrators in order to topple the government in Manama – an accusation Tehran denies.