Former Foreign Minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Khaled Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, and Pope Francis, during a private audience at the Vatican in November 2021. VATICAN MEDIA / AFP
No sovereign pope had ever been there before him. For his 39th apostolic journey since his appointment in 2013, Pope Francis has chosen Bahrain, an archipelago of fewer than two million people located in a region little visited by the Vatican. The Arabian Peninsula has received just one papal visit so far in 2019, while Francis has already visited the United Arab Emirates.
This time, at the invitation of the local sovereign, King Hamad Ben Issa Al Khalifa, the Pope is traveling to Bahrain from November 3-6, a country with a Shia majority but whose leaders are Sunni. On Friday November 4th he will give the closing speech of the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue “East and West for human coexistence”. An event meant to bring together religious dignitaries from several countries, including Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque, an institution which, for lack of political leadership in the Muslim world, can boast of some intellectual authority.
The presence of this key figure, whom the Pope has met on several occasions and with whom he is said to be close, also serves the official purpose of the trip: to emphasize the importance of interreligious dialogue. The Pope therefore wants to continue the efforts to hold talks with Muslims and their various authorities, which have been the focus of several of his trips in recent years. As well as meeting the monarch and local dignitaries, he is also due to have a private meeting with Mr Al-Tayeb, after which he will deliver a speech to the organization he founded in 2014: the Muslim Council of Elders, whose stated aim is , “to promote cooperation between people”.
Outstanding political dialogue
The pope will then visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest church on the peninsula, where he will say an ecumenical prayer for peace before celebrating mass the next day in the 24,000-seat Bahrain National Stadium.
According to the latest surveys by the Aid to the Church in Need (AED) foundation, around 140,000 Christians live in this small kingdom on the Gulf, including 80,000 Catholics. In addition, it is also almost 1.6 million Christians that the sovereign Pope wants to reach across the peninsula. Christian Arabs in part, but mainly migrant workers from Asian countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Although strictly speaking they are not being persecuted for their worship, at least in Bahrain, according to ACN, many of them find themselves in the most precarious economic and personal situations, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic and political crises that have ensued around the world.
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