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ROME – When Pope Francis becomes the first pontiff to visit the Muslim-majority Gulf nation of Bahrain next month, it will mark yet another step in his continual efforts to reinforce dialogue with Islam and will give encouragement to the country’s small Christian minority.
Speaking to Crux, Bishop Paul Hinder – the vicar emeritus of the apostolic vicariate of Southern Arabia and current administrator for the apostolic vicariate of Northern Arabia in Kuwait – said Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Bahrain is “a continuation of the pontiff’s dialogue with the Muslim world.”
“I feel that one of the most pressing issues is the question of violence and the importance given to the values of justice and peace,” he said.
While Bahrain is a majority Muslim nation with a small Christian community, Pope Francis is still widely recognized and appreciated Hinder said. The pope’s efforts seeking solutions to “the many issues and humanitarian crises that plague the world,” especially the plight of migrants fleeing war and persecution, “have not gone unnoticed, especially in this part of the world.”
Pope Francis will travel to Bahrain Nov. 3-6 to attend a conferenced 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.
The two were recently in Kazakhstan together for another high-profile interfaith summit, and in 2019 they signed a document on human fraternity during the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi.
Noting that Francis will be the first pope to visit Bahrain, Hinder said the visit “is like a dream come true,” and that the announcement of the visit “has caused great excitement, not only among the Catholics, but even among people of other faiths who live in the small island nation.”
Bahrain, which is 70 percent Muslim, is home to the Arabian Gulf’s first Catholic Church, which opened in the capital city of Manama in 1939, as well as its largest, the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, which opened last year in the town of Awali and was built on land gifted by His Majesty King Hamad.
Pope Francis will visit both cities during his visit.
Please read below for Crux’s interview with Bishop Paul Hinder:
Crux: What is the significance of the pope’s visit to Bahrain? What does it mean to the local population, particularly Christians?
Hinder: The papal visit to Bahrain has huge significance for this predominantly Muslim region. Pope Francis is primarily coming to Bahrain to address the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue” upon invitation from His Majesty the King. Pope Francis has given great importance to meetings and encounters with those of different beliefs and has taken several courageous steps to encounter the ‘other’ with all the respective differences. He has never shied away from dialogue and trying to find common pathways to advance dialogue with the other. We have seen this in the past during the historic visit to Abu Dhabi which has resulted in the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity, which expresses the commitment of the two signatories – the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar – to work together to address common global issues and problems. The Pope’s visit to Bahrain is again a continuation of the journey already begun in Abu Dhabi.
At the same time, the warm welcome which he received in Abu Dhabi during his visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2019 and also the respect that he receives from different leaders within the Arabian peninsula are a sign that his efforts to try and find solutions to the many issues and humanitarian crises that plague the world, especially the welcoming and integration of the weakest and most vulnerable parts of human society such as the homeless migrants who are forced to abandon their homes due to war and persecution – have not gone unnoticed, especially in this part of the world.
For many of the Catholics in Bahrain, who have been eagerly awaiting this visit since the King of Bahrain personally invited the Pope, this is like a dream come true. Bahrain has two parishes, the Sacred Heart Church, which is also the first Church in the Arabian Gulf, built and opened in 1939, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, which was built on a plot of land (9000 square meters) gifted by His Majesty King Hamad. The news of the Papal visit has caused great excitement, not only among the Catholics, but even among people of other faiths who live in the small island nation.
Why now? The pope will attend the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue to promote human coexistence between east and west, but presumably there have been invitations for other events in the past. Why do you think the pope accepted the invitation for this one?
Relations between the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Vatican have progressed greatly in recent years. In 2014, His Majesty King Hamad presented a model of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia to Pope Francis and also extended an invitation to the Pontiff to visit the Kingdom. This was followed by visits of the Crown Prince [His Highness] Prince Salman in 2020 and the King’s representative who again renewed the invitation in 2021.
King Hamad also endorsed the Document on Human Fraternity, signed in Abu Dhabi by the Pontiff and Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar in 2019 that aims to further the spirit of brotherhood and cooperation among followers of different faiths while working together to address challenges and issues which threaten the common home and the fabric of societies.
The Bahrain Forum for Dialogue is a reflection of the Kingdom’s positioning as a developed and liberal country which seeks to have a leading voice in the conversation on the values and goals that can unite peoples and contribute to the progress of the human race. When the opportunity presented, Pope Francis has felt that now the time is ripe to pay the island nation the much-awaited visit.
How important is this forum, especially in the regional context? Will there be other major religious leaders present?
Details of the forum are being worked out and are still awaited from the organizers. We understand that there will be leaders of several other faiths who will be present. We know that Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar will be present. Regionally, the forum will have its prominence as by hosting such an event, the Kingdom of Bahrain seeks to reiterate its commitment to tolerance and respect for all religions and also seeks to find answers and seek pathways to address pressing problems.
Based on your own experience, what are the most urgent issues to discuss regarding relations between east and west, in your view? How important is this discussion, especially in the current global context?
This is a continuation of the pontiff’s dialogue with the Muslim world. I feel that one of the most pressing issues is the question of violence and the importance given to the values of justice and peace. There is the famous saying, ‘There is no peace without justice.’ Discussions must seek to bring justice to the extent possible to the different sectors. The first step is for each party to be able to express themselves and to be able to listen to the other. Though this is a long and complicated road, we must pursue the part of dialogue without growing tired. Dialogue is the only pathway open within a world where there is no more the option of using violence to secure one’s way, as this opens up the frightening possibilities towards weapons of mass destruction which will finally have as its targets the innocents on both sides.
The second step consists in building up mutual trust and credibility. This cannot be done without respecting the basic rules of the international law. There must be found a way to ban weapons that can destroy the life of the human beings on earth and make our planet uninhabitable. Finally, we have to be aware that justice and peace are not simply a result of good will, diplomatic negotiations and a reliable juridical framework, but lastly a gift from God for which we have to pray. Pope Francis reminds us every now and then of the truth that there will no be peace on earth if we are not in peace with God.
What is unique about Bahrain’s religious composition, and especially, Christianity in Bahrain? What is unique about the church there?
Bahrain has over 80,000 Roman Catholics, the majority of them migrants from various countries, including the Indian Subcontinent and the Philippines, while the population is 70 percent Muslim. Bahrain is also one of the few GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries to have a local Christian population – largely Roman Catholic – of about 1,000, mostly Arab Christians from the Middle East who migrated to Bahrain between 1930s and 1950s and now hold Bahraini citizenship.
Bahrain has a history of religious freedom and tolerance for nearly 200 years and allows worship places for all religions. The Kingdom has been very welcoming to the expatriate Christian community and provides a climate of openness and tolerance for people of different beliefs to practice their faith. Bahrain is a vibrant community with a rich cultural mix – a model for peaceful co-existence of the many different faiths who live and work side by side in the island nation.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen