Pope Francis picks Bahrain to relaunch dialogue with Islam and the East

From 3 to 6 November, the pontiff will visit a country in the Vicariate of North Arabia for the first time. Bishop Hinder: a message of peace, at a time when many are experiencing "various forms of conflict, hostility and wars". A reign of light and shadow in terms of rights, violations and abuses against the Shia opposition. 

Manama (AsiaNews) - In the wake of the historic visit to the United Arab Emirates (a first in the Gulf countries) in February 2019, the Holy See yesterday made official the news of Pope Francis' apostolic trip to Bahrain from 3 to 6 November.

The local Church has already launched a website dedicated to the event (www.bahrainpapalvisit.org), where it is possible to find highlights and information on the local community led by Msgr. Paul Hinder, apostolic administrator of northern Arabia (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain). 

Rumours about the visit had already circulated in recent weeks, particularly during the press conference on the return flight from Kazakhstan, where the pontiff had attended the World Religions Congress. Yesterday the Vatican note underlined that "accepting the invitation of the civil and ecclesial authorities" the Pope "will go to Bahrain from 3 to 6 November". Francis will visit 'Manama and Awali on the occasion of the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence'.

The theme of the trip, as Msgr. Hinder explains in a video message, is "Peace on earth to men of good will", a passage taken from the Gospel of Luke. A "very appropriate" theme at a time in history when many in the world experience "various forms of conflict, hostility and wars" and "look to Heaven with a sincere cry for peace". In addition to attending the conference, the Pontiff will celebrate a solemn Mass at the Bahrain National Stadium on Saturday 5 November "in which the Catholics of Bahrain and the other nations of the Vicariate of North Arabia are invited to participate". Bishop Hinder concluded by entrusting the visit to the intercession of "Our Lady of Arabia", patroness of the Arabian Peninsula, to whom the cathedral built in Awali and inaugurated in December 2021 is dedicated. 

There have been established relations between the Holy See and Manama for years, with the first meeting in the Vatican between Pope Francis and King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa in May 2014. During the audience, the two leaders discussed peace in the Middle East and dialogue between different components, as well as the contribution of Christians in the country. The visit to Bahrain will also be an opportunity to participate in the Awali Dialogue Forum, focusing on 'East and West for Human Coexistence', at which the Imam of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyeb will be present - in the wake of the 2019 event in Abu Dhabi on Human Brotherhood.

The official religion is Islam and the country is governed by Sharia, Islamic law, the source of law. Catholics, about 80,000 out of a total population of 1.7 million (10% Christians), were originally migrants from Iraq and Iran. After the oil boom, hundreds of thousands of Christians arrived from Sri Lanka, India, Lebanon, the Philippines and various western countries. At Christmas and Easter, the churches in Bahrain - a country where there are also Jewish and Hindu communities - also host many Christians from Saudi Arabia, where any religion other than Islam is forbidden.

However, in the country that invites the pontiff and extols dialogue, there are also elements of concern and violations of rights. Bahrain, in fact, is a monarchy ruled by a Sunni dynasty in a country where the majority of the population (at least 60-70%) is Shia and has long been calling for constitutional changes and social and economic rights. In 2011 in the wake of the Arab Springs, there were uprisings that the king - allied with Washington and supported by Riyadh - defeated with Saudi troops.

In recent years, the authorities have arrested and convicted Shia activists and religious leaders and suspended the activities of Al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition group, on charges of "terrorism, extremism and violence" as well as links with Iran. In January 2019, the kingdom's Supreme Court had upheld the life sentence for Shia opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman in a final ruling. Yesterday, a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Abduljalil Al-Miqdad, founder of the opposition group Al Wafaa and also sentenced to life imprisonment, was the victim of attacks and violence in prison, while prison authorities denied him medical treatment.