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ROME – One day after several family members of inmates on death row were detained, Pope Francis on his final day in the Gulf nation of Bahrain made another appeal on behalf of prisoners, thanking those who minister to them and saying their treatment is a reflection of society as a whole.
Speaking to bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and pastoral workers at Sacred Heart Church in Manama, the Gulf’s oldest catholic church, Pope Francis also stressed the importance of what he said is witness and “prophecy.”
Prophecy and the preaching of truth, he said, allows the Christian community to put the Gospel into practice “in everyday situations, building meekly, yet resolutely God’s kingdom, in which love, justice and peace are opposed to every form of selfishness, violence and degradation.”
To this end, he thanked one of the religious sisters who gave her testimony for the ministry she conducts in prisons, saying “This is something for which we should be grateful.”
“The prophecy that builds up and consoles those prisoners is our sharing time with them, breaking open the word of God and praying with them. It is our showing concern for them, for where there are brothers and sisters in need, like those in prison, there is also Jesus, who himself suffers in all those who suffer,” he said.
Caring for prisoners, Francis said, “is good for everyone, as a human community, since the way in which these ‘least ones’ are treated is a measure of the dignity and the hope of a society.”
Pope Francis’s remarks come after the brief detention Friday of family members of prisoners and inmates on death row.
Ever since Francis’s visit to Bahrain was announced, it has been followed by a chorus of complaints from activists and prisoners’ families, both before and during the pope’s Nov. 3-6 visit, who have accused the government of torture, of handing out unfair sentences in sham trials, and denying prisoners medical care.
On Friday, as the pope was preparing to meet with young people at Sacred Heart School in Awali, a group of family members of inmates on death row gathered for an impromptu protest near the school, holding banners and signs condemning alleged human rights abuses and asking for a meeting with the pontiff.
According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), a former political prisoner and the mother of a man currently in prison for alleged political reasons, Hajer Mansoor, held a sign telling Pope Francis, “Tolerance does not exist for us here in Bahrain,” and asking him to save her “tortured son,” Sayed Nizar Alwadaei, “and other political prisoners.”
The wife and children of another activist and inmate, Mohammed Ramadhan, held a sign showing Mohammed’s photo that thanked Pope Francis for his visit, saying, “My children and I have been suffering for 9 years while my tortured husband…is still on death row. Please meet with us.”
Family members of one of the oldest and most prominent activists who is jailed, Hassan Mushaima, were also present, holding a sign that said, “Tolerance & Coexistence is a practice not just a slogan!”
Police came and broke up the protest, threatening the family members with arrest and taking them by car and dropping them at a nearby shopping mall, the Alramli Mall, after collecting their information.
The families were protesting the government’s treatment of their loved ones and were asking for a meeting with Pope Francis, who in a speech to civil authorities on his first day in Bahrain condemned the country’s practice of the death penalty, which he has strongly advocated against.
In the Nov. 3 speech, Francis stressed “the right to life” and the need “to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken.”
Family members of prisoners currently on death row welcomed the pope’s remarks.
Zainab Mohammed, the wife of prisoner and activist Mohammed Ramadhan, said the pope’s words “gave me hope.”
“It has been nine years since my kids and I have been waiting for a day of justice as my innocent husband has suffered unspeakable torture and continues to suffer from medical negligence at Jau Prison,” she said, saying the pope’s remarks will only be meaningful if he “makes direct representation to the King on our behalf.”
“Since he is in the country, he should hear directly from us. He should hear our suffering,” she said.
It appears unlikely that Pope Francis will visit a prison or meet with family members of prisoners and activists during his remaining hours in Bahrain, but his remarks in both his opening speech and in his address to bishops and clergy indicates that he is not unaware of their plight.
Speaking to bishops, priests, and religious Sunday, the pope noted that many are migrants and gave a shout-out to their countries of origin, including Lebanon, and offered prayers for that “beloved country, so weary and sorely tried.”
He urged the local Catholic community in Bahrain to operate with joy and unity, and to be courageous in bearing witness and preaching the Gospel.
Joy, when it comes from God, “is naturally contagious, since the Gospel makes us go beyond ourselves to share the beauty of God’s love,” he said, saying it is essential “that this joy not be dimmed or left unshared in Christian communities, that we do not restrict ourselves to doing things by force of habit, without enthusiasm or creativity.”
“It is important that we spread the joy of the Gospel through a lively pastoral outreach, especially to young people and families, and through fostering vocations to the priesthood and the religious life,” the pope said, adding, “We cannot keep Christian joy to ourselves. It multiplies once we start spreading it around.
Francis also stressed the importance of unity, especially in a community whose members come from such diverse backgrounds, saying that as Christians, “There can no longer be room for the works of the flesh, acts of selfishness, such as factions, quarrels, slander and gossip.”
“Worldly divisions, but also ethnic, cultural and ritual differences, cannot injure or compromise the unity of the Spirit. On the contrary, his fire burns away worldly desires and kindles in our lives the warm and compassionate love with which Jesus loves us, so that we in turn can love one another,” he said.
Calling the Holy Spirit a source of “unity and fraternity, opposed to every form of selfishness,” Pope Francis said that “If we have received the Spirit, our ecclesial vocation is above all to preserve unity and cultivate it together.”
“Let us seek to be guardians and builders of unity! In order to be credible when we dialogue with others, let us live in fraternity among ourselves,” he said. “In this way, we can fend off the enemy who always sows weeds.”
Francis closed his speech thanking attendees and Bahraini authorities for his visit, urging the Catholic community “to persevere in your spiritual and ecclesial journey with steadfastness and joy,” and asking that the Virgin Mary “keep us joyful and united in affection and love.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen