Pope Presses Muslim Dialogue In First Papal Visit To Bahrain

Pope Francis is bringing his message of dialogue with the Muslim world to the kingdom of Bahrain, where the Sunni-led government is hosting an interfaith conference on East-West coexistence even as it stands accused of discriminating against the country’s Shiite majority.

Human rights groups and relatives of Shiite activists on death row have urged Francis to use his visit, which begins Thursday, to call for an end to the death penalty and political repression in Bahrain. But it’s not clear if Francis will publicly embarrass his hosts during his four-day visit, the first of any pontiff to the island nation in the Persian Gulf.

The 85-year-old pope, who has been using a wheelchair for several months because of strained knee ligaments, said Thursday he was in “a lot of pain” as he headed to Bahrain, and for the first time greeted journalists travelling with him while seated rather than walking through the aisle.

Francis has long touted dialogue as an instrument of peace and believes a show of interfaith harmony is needed, especially now given Russia’s war in Ukraine and regional conflicts, such as in Yemen. On the eve of the trip, Francis asked for prayers so that the trip will promote “the cause of brotherhood and of peace, of which our times are in extreme and urgent need.”

The visit is Francis’ second to a Gulf Arab country, following his 2019 landmark trip to Abu Dhabi, where he signed a document promoting Catholic-Muslim fraternity with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. Al-Tayeb is the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo. Francis followed that with a 2021 visit to Iraq, where he was received by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the world’s pre-eminent Shiite clerics.

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