ROME – As Pope Francis departs for the Gulf nation of Bahrain to participate in an international forum for dialogue, he’s doing 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 Nov. 3-6, is the first-ever pope to visit the country, and the trip therefore holds 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 excited for the visit and look forward to welcoming their shepherd among them, government opponents have voiced skepticism and have begged the pope not to allow Bahraini officials to use the visit as a photo op while continuing repressive practices.
Speaking to journalists during a media roundtable last month, 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 he believes Pope Francis “will try to make a path as much as possible with the Muslim world.”
Bahrain is 70 percent Muslim, with roughly two thirds belonging to the Shia tradition, and one third, including the ruling Al Khalifa family, belonging to the Sunni tradition, meaning there is some “societal tension,” Hinder said.
While religious freedom in Bahrain is among the greatest in the Arab world, according to Hinder, some issues are still present. After living in the region for 18 years, Hinder said he has learned “to take the diplomatic route,” lest anything he says be found as offensive.
“We who live here must always be careful not to lose residence in this country,” he said.
Pope Francis is traveling to Bahrain 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 February 2019 they signed a document on human fraternity during the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi.
Bahrain, though majority 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.
In addition to attending the forum, the pope is also scheduled to meet with King Hamad Al Khalifa and civil authorities, and he will also meet privately el-Tayeb, and participate in a meeting with members of the Muslim Council of Elders.
He is scheduled to participate in an ecumenical prayer for peace and celebrate Mass with the local Catholic community and hold a meeting with youth in Bahrain. He’ll also meet with bishops, priests, and religious before returning to Rome.
According to Hinder, apart from some tensions among families who don’t allow conversions, religious freedom is respected in Bahrain, and there is no formal government punishment for conversions from Islam.
There is also a common interest among the various religions present in the country to protect the environment, and their land, he said, saying they know “that if there is a conflict among majority Christian and majority Muslim countries, it’s a problem for the world, not one or two countries.”
Hinder voiced 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 go forward, even if not everyone in the Catholic Church or the Muslim world is in agreement, 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 for conflicts” throughout the world.
Asked about Bahrain’s use of the death penalty given Pope Francis’s consistent opposition to the practice, Hinder said that he is aware there is a difference of opinion, but even as a representative of the pope, “my experience after 18 years is not to give any open criticism.”
To speak publicly about areas of disagreement or to criticize the government for some of its practices, he said, would be difficult, because while the western world is used to giving open criticisms, “Our context is certainly limited.”
It is this limitation that many Bahraini activists have taken issue with, accusing the government of attempting to muzzle any form of dissent or opposition.
For years, pro-democracy activists who take issue with what they have described as the Al Khalifa family’s dictatorship, have accused the Bahraini government under the king’s orders of various human rights abuses such as political arrests and torture.
Activists claim that rights such as freedom of speech and assembly are virtually nonexistent, and have accused the ruling Al Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims, of discrimination against the country’s Shia majority. They have also accused the government of mistreatment of prisoners, saying that in addition to torture, aging inmates have been denied routine medical treatment.
Many activists were arrested during the 2011 uprisings, including, Hassan Mashaima, 73, who is among the most prominent of the so-called “Bahrain Thirteen,” which refers to 13 Bahraini opposition leaders, activists, bloggers, and Shia clerics who were arrested between March 17 and April 9, 2011, in connection with their role in the national pro-democracy protests that year led by the country’s Shia majority at the height of the region’s “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Numerous activists and advocacy groups have spoken out ahead of Pope Francis’s visit, calling on him to either withdraw from the trip, or to publicly condemn what they say are the government’s human rights violations while he is in Bahrain.
In a letter to the pope from BIRD (Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy), the organization’s director, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, voiced his concern that King Hamad “will exploit your trip in an attempt to legitimize his systematic discrimination against the majority of Bahrain’s population and launder his government’s international image over its repressive human rights record.”
He accused the king of arbitrary detentions, torture, executions, and even the abuse of children, saying “His hands are drenched with the blood of his own citizens,” and that it would be “heartbreaking” for the families of political prisoners and death row inmates to see the pope shaking hands with the king.
Alwadaei said he was also tortured by officials and exiled after taking part in the 2011 protests, and that his citizenship was revoked in 2013, “rendering me stateless in a blatant breach of international law.”
The United Nations has 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 has intensified after the 2011 protests.
“I believe that a King who represses 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 refrain from shaking the king’s hand, and to be “open and frank” about the government’s wrongdoing.
Another activist who has spent over nine years in prison, Ali Al-Hajee, 39, also wrote a letter to Pope Francis saying he is a victim of torture, and that the use of “unjustified force” to quell the 2011 protests has 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 demonstration, and that his confession was coerced through the use of torture. He said he has also faced physical and psychological mistreatment in prison, and that Shia Muslims are not allowed to practice religious ceremonies in groups.
He urged the pope to tell the king of Bahrain to “abide by peace” and to 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 breaches under international law,” and that the death sentences they received came from “sham trials based solely or primarily on confessions allegedly coerced through torture and ill-treatment.”
Referring to a report conducted by BIRD and Human Rights Watch, the families said death row inmates have been subjected “to electrical shocks to the chest and genitals, sleep deprivation, beatings, and attempted rape.”
“Their trials cannot be considered fair, but they have exhausted all legal remedies and, with a stroke of King Hamad’s pen, they could be sent to the firing squad,” they said, and voiced hope that the pope would repeat his condemnation of the death penalty while in Bahrain.
Yet while activists are making their demands, excitement over the pope’s visit is building among Catholics in Bahrain, the bulk of whom are foreigners.
In terms of his own expectations for the visit, Hinder said he believes the pope will continue the process of dialogue and promoting human fraternity that he began in Abu Dhabi, and has carried forward through many of this trips since.
“I think the pope’s intention is to open our minds, to make us understand that it is absolutely necessary to find relations of mutual respect and collaboration in areas where it’s possible,” he said, saying that regardless of Bahrain’s small size, people will still hear the pope’s message.
Catholics, he said, are happy the pope is coming and “feel recognized as a small flock with no power, but we exist. The fact that the pope is coming to celebrate with us, for us, it’s not possible for people outside to understand the moral value, the human and religious value,” he said.
As Pope Francis travels to Bahrain, then, 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 current leadership, and calling on him to speak out.
For a pope who practices the diplomacy of dialogue and is set on cementing Catholic-Muslim ties, but who also stands for the oppressed and for prisoners, Pope Francis will have a lot to balance in the days to come.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen