An American activist group promoting human rights in Bahrain has called on Pope Francis to either back out of his upcoming visit to the Gulf nation or criticize what they say are repressive and discriminatory government practices.

In an Oct. 12 statement, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) said that certain acts of friendship toward some religions “does not absolve a dictator of his repression and harassment of others.”

They noted that the majority of the population in Bahrain are Shia Muslims, who they said are “purposely kept down through religious discrimination, harassment, and by force.”

Because of this, the group called on Pope Francis “to reconsider this visit due to the rampant discrimination against Shia in Bahrain or to raise attention to these violations if he chooses to follow through with the visit.”

Pope Francis will make an official visit to Bahrain Nov. 3-6, to attend an interfaith conference titled, “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence,” which is expected to draw other high-profile religious leaders, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb.

It will mark the first-ever papal visit to the country and will be the pope’s latest effort to advance interfaith relations, particularly with the Muslim community.

In their statement, the ADHRB, which according to its website is devoted to fostering awareness of and support for human rights in Bahrain and other Gulf Council Countries (GCC), said that when a nation of people is “put down by a dictator and made to pass through life without common freedoms, it undermines the rest of the free world.”

“When leaders extend friendship to tyrants without insisting on important changes, it undermines the rest of the free world. If a President or a Pope shrinks away from the hard conversation of challenging the violence and subversion of a dictator, freedom of conscience and speech and opinion are undermined everywhere,” they said.

Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy under King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Al Khalifa has served as King of Bahrain since February 2002, after ruling the country as emir since March 1999. He is the son of the first emir, Salman Al Khalifa. Bahrain has been ruled by the Al Khalifa dynasty since 1783, although it was a British protectorate from the late 1800s until 1971.

Though the king has been praised by Catholic leaders for gifting the land on which Bahrain’s largest Catholic church – the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, which opened last year in the town of Awali – was built, Al Khalifa has come under pressure for the country’s treatment of the Shia Muslim community.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, the government of Bahrain – whose constitution declares Islam as the official religion and sharia a guiding principle for legislation – “continued to question, detain, and arrest clerics and other members of the majority Shia community.”

The report stated that both international and local NGOs reported that Bahrani police had summoned roughly 10 people, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the August Ashura commemoration, one of the most important days of the Shia religious calendar.

The government, it said, also “continued to monitor, regulate, and provide general guidance for the content of all religious sermons – of both Sunni and Shia religious leaders – and to bring charges against clerics, citing violations of topics preapproved by the government.”

State-run television channels continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, al-Fateh Mosque, “but not sermons from Shia mosques,” the report said, saying many Shia mosques broadcast their sermons via social media.

Citing Shia leaders and community activists, the report said that the Bahrain government “continued to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for public sector positions,” and that unemployment rates, poverty, and limited opportunities for professional advancement disproportionately impacted the Shia community.

However, the report offered the disclaimer: “Because religious and political affiliations were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely (based) on religious identity.”

A spokesperson for the government of Bahrain hit back against these claims, telling Crux that the country “is a multi-cultural society that prides itself on the peaceful co-existence of multiple faiths and peoples.”

“People of all faiths in the Kingdom have the right to freedom of worship and to carry out religious activities and sermons,” the spokesperson said, insisting that “religious prejudice of any kind is unacceptable, and the Government of Bahrain treats attempts to promote hate and division with the utmost seriousness.”

They said that to date, “no census divides the Bahraini population according to sect,” and that citizens of all faiths, denominations, ethnicities, and genders “serve in public positions of power and responsibility based on merit and experience.”

However, in their statement, the ADHRB group claimed that “harassment” of the Shia Muslim community is “a checkpoint in the Al-Khalifa objective of keeping themselves in power.”

They pointed to the 2011 pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain, led largely by Shia Muslims pushing for government reforms in favor of their parties and communities, saying the government in its efforts to squelch the at-times violent uprisings deliberately targeted Shia Muslims, and continue to hold many in state prisons.

“The government has prohibited all forms of religious demonstrations, marches, and assemblies, along with funeral processions,” and they also targeted the Shia community during Ashura celebrations “through the forced removal of banners and summoning of religious figures for questioning regarding performed sermons,” the group said.

Even in prison, Shia Muslims face discrimination, ADHRB said, citing several cases they argue are evidence of the government’s torture and mistreatment of Shia inmates.

Despite these claims, the United States’ 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom noted that Al Khalifa in March 2020 issued a decree pardoning 901 inmates, many of whom were Shia, for humanitarian reasons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two months later, he pardoned an additional 154 inmates who had served part of their prison terms.

In their statement, ADHRB said Bahrain’s constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom in both public and private spaces, but that “in practice, Shia Muslim worshippers have been summoned, arrested, and forced to sign pledges,” and have even been “detained and sentenced for practicing their religious rituals.”

“The religious rights enumerated in the country’s laws are only an act of subterfuge, printed on paper as a means for the Bahraini ruling family to access the benefits of friendship with more powerful world leaders and obscure the misery of their human rights abuses,” they said, casting this as a subtext for Pope Francis’s upcoming visit.

The spokesperson for the government of Bahrain told Crux that when it comes to allegations of mistreating prisoners and harassing them based on their religious affiliation, “No individual in Bahrain is arrested or in custody because of their religious or political beliefs.”

The government, they said, “fully supports the freedom to peacefully express views and opinions, which is enshrined in and upheld in the Kingdom’s constitution.”

“However, in cases where individuals incite, promote, or glorify violence or hatred, there is a duty to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute such individuals,” they said.

This piece has been updated with comments from a spokesperson for the government of Bahrain. 

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen