Pope calls for end to death penalty upon arrival in Bahrain


AWALI, Bahrain (AP) — Pope Francis on Thursday urged authorities in Bahrain to renounce the death penalty and guarantee basic human rights for all citizens upon his arrival in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, accused by groups of rights of systematic discrimination against its Shia Majority.

With King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at his side, Francis also urged the Gulf Arab nation to ensure “safe and dignified” working conditions for its immigrant workers, who have long been victims of abuse and exploitation in the island’s construction, oil extraction and domestic service sectors. .

Although a diplomat, Francis did not shy away from addressing some of the contentious social issues in Bahrain at the start of his four-day visit to take part in a government-sponsored interfaith conference on East-West dialogue and deal with the small Catholic community in the country.

Francis, 85, who has been using a wheelchair for several months due to strained knee ligaments, said he was in “a lot” of pain as he flew to the Gulf. For the first time, he welcomed journalists traveling with him seated rather than walking down the aisle of the plane.

Human rights groups and relatives of Shia activists on death row had urged Francis to use his visit to Bahrain to demand an end to capital punishment and defend political dissidents, hundreds of whom have since been detained that Bahrain violently crushed the 2011 Arab Spring protests with help from Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

In the years that followed, Bahrain imprisoned Shiite activists, expelled others, stripped hundreds of their nationalities, banned the largest Shiite opposition group and shut down its main independent newspaper.

The government of Bahrain maintains that it respects human rights and freedom of expression. Ahead of the trip, the government told The Associated Press it had a “zero tolerance policy towards discrimination, persecution or promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith”.

Francis indirectly referenced sectarian strife when he arrived in the desert town of Awali and met Al Khalifa at the royal palace in Sakhir during the first-ever papal visit to Bahrain. Addressing government authorities and diplomats from the glittering courtyard of the palace, Francis hailed Bahrain’s tradition of tolerance and cited Bahrain’s constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on religion, as a stated commitment that must be implemented. in practice.

This, he said, would ensure “that equal dignity and equal opportunity will be concretely recognized for each group and for each individual; that no form of discrimination exists and that fundamental human rights are not violated but promoted.

Referring to the death penalty, Francis said that the government must guarantee above all the right to life, and “the need to always guarantee this right, including for those who are punished, whose life must not be taken “.

According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, Bahrain ended a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in 2017 and has since executed six prisoners. The group and Human Rights Watch have documented a “dramatic increase” in the number of death sentences handed down since 2011, with 26 people currently on death row, half of them for political activities. The groups said some were convicted after “grossly unfair trials based solely or primarily on confessions allegedly obtained under duress through torture and ill-treatment”.

Ahead of the visit, the Bahrain rights group published a letter from relatives of some of those on death row, begging Francis to raise the issue and visit Jau prison where many political detainees are held.

“Our family members remain behind bars and face execution despite the manifest injustice of their beliefs,” the letter read.

Francis changed the teaching of the Catholic Church to declare the death penalty impermissible in all cases. He has regularly visited prisoners during his trips abroad, but no such prison visit is planned in Bahrain. Francis has also repeatedly called for dignified wages and working conditions for workers around the world, and he repeated this call upon his arrival in Bahrain.

Francis recalled that Bahrain had one of the highest levels of immigration in the world, with around half the population foreign workers, but a lot of the work was “dehumanizing”.

“Let’s make sure working conditions everywhere are safe and dignified,” Francis said. He urged Bahrain to be a “beacon in the region for the promotion of equal rights and the improvement of the conditions of workers, women and young people, while guaranteeing the respect and concern of all those who feel most marginalized from society, such as as immigrants and prisoners.

Bahrain, like other Gulf Arab states, relies on workers from Asian countries like India and Pakistan who can cope with harsh conditions for low pay. While Bahrain and others have made labor reforms after facing international pressure, some workers still find themselves mistreated by their employers or denied the wages they are owed.

Al Khalifa, for his part, hailed Francis’ efforts to promote interreligious brotherhood and said Bahrain was committed to a similar goal of a world “where tolerance prevails while striving for peace and rejecting all that divides.” its unity”.

Francis is expected to speak directly to migrant workers when he meets the country’s Catholic community, which numbers around 80,000 people in a country of about 1.5 million people. Most are workers from the Philippines and India, although trip organizers expect pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries to attend Francis’ High Mass at the National Stadium on Saturday.

Bahrain is home to the oldest Catholic church in the Gulf, the Parish of the Sacred Heart, which opened in 1939, as well as its largest, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia. With a capacity of 2,300, the cathedral opened last year in Awali on land donated to the church by the king.

Francis will tour both churches during his visit and will likely thank the king for the government’s long-standing tolerance for Christians, especially compared to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot openly practice their faith.

“Religious freedom in Bahrain is perhaps the best in the Arab world,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Administrator of Bahrain and other Gulf countries. “Even if everything is not ideal, there may be conversions (to Christianity), which are at least not officially punished as in other countries.”


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


Comments are closed.