VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis is set to pay a four-day visit to Bahrain, a trip that will make him the first pope to visit the Arab kingdom just off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.
The November 3-6 visit has two main objectives: to speak at the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence and to encourage the expatriate-majority Catholic and Christian communities living and working in the Muslim-majority region. .
Underlining the theme of the visit, “Peace on earth to people of good will”, the pope is expected to be a “messenger of peace”, calling on all peoples and all nations to come together, without prejudice and open to seeing themselves as brothers and sisters.
It will be the 13th Muslim-majority country he has visited in nearly 10 years as pope.
Pope Francis is visiting Bahrain to further promote inter-religious cooperation as “there is a common interest among monotheistic religions,” Archbishop Paul Hinder, administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of North Arabia, told reporters via video call from Abu Dubai on October 24.
The common desire is to help “care for creation…knowing that if there is conflict between Christian and Muslim majority nations, it is a problem for the whole world, not just for one or two countries,” the 80-year-old said. -former Swiss bishop, who was first appointed auxiliary bishop of Arabia in 2003, and now oversees Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and, officially, Saudi Arabia.
The pope’s intention, he said, is “to make us realize that it is absolutely necessary” to find a place where there can be strong mutual respect and cooperation.
The pope will have the opportunity to highlight the role that governments, diplomats and members of civil society must play when he meets with them on November 3 at Sakhir Palace. The pope will also meet King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who invited the pope and is sponsoring the Forum for Dialogue event.
Bahrain, a thriving archipelago of around 30 islands, is the smallest country in the Middle East, with around 1.5 million people, about half of whom are foreign workers. About 74% of the inhabitants are Muslims and 9% are Christians. People of Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish faith are among the other communities present.
Bishop Hinder said there were no official statistics on the number of Christians, but the church estimates there are around 80,000 Catholics in Bahrain, of whom around 1,000 are citizens of the kingdom.
Bahrain’s Catholics come mainly from the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka. South Americans, Europeans and Arabs from the Levant region make up the rest of the island’s Christian population.
Archbishop Hinder said Catholics are delighted that the Pope is coming to encourage them in the faith.
They are “a small herd with little to no power,” he said. The papal visit makes them “feel recognized. ‘We exist!’ and it will boost morale.
Expat workers don’t have an easy life, he said, not because they live in a Muslim country, but because it’s a life full of uncertainties as many try to figure out their next move. : stay, return home or look for a job in the west.
Freedom of religion is generally well respected in Bahrain, “although not quite ideal”, the bishop said. For example, there are no formal legal barriers to religious conversion, he said, but there can be enormous societal and especially family pressure against conversion.
Bahrain was the first country in the Persian Gulf to build a Catholic church – the Church of the Sacred Heart, which was inaugurated in 1939 on Christmas Eve. On his last day in Bahrain, the pope will hold a prayer meeting there with bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and pastoral workers.
The country is now also home to the largest cathedral in the Persian Gulf region; The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia was consecrated in December in Awali, 25 km south of the capital Manama. It was built to better serve the growing Catholic population – estimated at 2.5 million – throughout the Gulf region.
The pope will hold an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace in the cathedral on November 4, just after his meeting with Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of the Egyptian Al-Azhar Mosque and University, and with members of the Muslim Council of Elders. an international group of Islamic scholars and experts – at the Sakhir Palace Mosque.
Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at Bahrain’s National Stadium in Awali on Nov. 5, and Bishop Hinder said organizers have reserved seats for Catholics from neighboring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which does not allow Christians to practice their faith openly.
The Pope’s visit will send “a strong signal” to Saudi Arabia, which will surely watch, but is moving more slowly than some other nations in the region on greater respect for religious freedom and the dignity of all, Bishop Hinder said.
“I am convinced that going to a small state which does not have much power in the political game of the Middle East” is perhaps “a good place to send a signal” to the surrounding region, said the bishop.
Although there have been some policy reforms, Human Rights Watch reported several concerns, including with the work visa sponsorship system, which gives employers excessive power over their foreign employees, and with the use of the death and long prison sentences for pro-democracy. militants.
Bishop Hinder said he would not expect the pope to raise these concerns publicly because in his experience more can be done “behind the scenes.”
Western countries are used to being able to openly criticize others, he said. Bahrain, however, has an “affirmative culture”, which emphasizes praise and encouragement, and discourages overt criticism, which would be considered disrespectful.
What has been more effective in his discussions with leaders, he said, is to open up honestly and privately in a way that “opens the mind” to the issues.
“I expect some problematic things to be on the agenda as well,” he said, but handled in a more discreet way, out of the spotlight.
Such “symbolic visits by a pope will have effects that perhaps we cannot foresee today”, he said. “I think his brave steps will open doors. We don’t know where, but I hope they will also contribute to finding solutions to conflicts in the region and perhaps also on a global level.