Pope Francis Makes Historic First Papal Visit to Bahrain
By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer
Earlier this month, Pope Francis made a historic first papal visit to the country of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf from November 3-6, 2022. Never before has any pope visited Bahrain, a country with an almost seventy-percent Muslim majority. Interestingly enough, Bahrain also happens to have a sizable Catholic minority, and part of the Pope’s trip was meant to strengthen Bahraini Catholics and others living in the Gulf region.
So, why did Pope Francis make this historic first trip to Bahrain, and what issues were addressed during his meetings with the country’s political and religious leadership? In this article, we break down the reasons for Pope Francis’s trip to Bahrain, the historical significance of this visit, and his role in brokering interreligious dialogue between the Vatican in Rome and Muslim leaders in the Gulf.
Reasons for Visiting Bahrain:
The primary reasons for the Pope’s trip to Bahrain were to further his engagement with interreligious dialogue, strengthen Catholic minorities, empower the youth, discuss social issues, attempt to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide, and meet with political officials to create stronger partnerships between nations as well as continuously advocating for world peace.
In his tenure as the Pope, Francis has become rather adept at engaging in interreligious dialogue, and he seems to focus on creating improved ties with Muslim-majority countries with either small Catholic minorities like Iraq, or others with sizable Catholic minorities as evidenced by his most recent trip to Bahrain. Francis’s trip to Bahrain continues this tradition of creating lasting bonds between the leaders of these two major world religions, that being Catholicism and Islam. This is further emphasized by his words in September 2022 when the Catholic News Agency reported that Pope Francis said, “[t]he path of interreligious dialogue is a shared path to peace and for peace; as such, it is necessary and irrevocable.” The Pope’s visit to Bahrain was in line with his mission to promote world peace, and interreligious dialogue, and to create stronger bonds between Europe and the Middle East.
In addition, Francis’s trip reflected his commitment to strengthening Catholic minority communities in the Middle East. This dedication is especially important to remember that in 2021, the Pope also visited Iraq. That trip was also meant to further interfaith relations between Muslims and Catholics as well. Since Francis is the leader and public face of the Catholic church, it is important for him to show solidarity and unity with Bahraini Catholics especially since it is one of the few countries in the Persian Gulf region that has provisions for religious freedom beyond practicing Islam.
During his visit, Pope Francis held discussions with Bahraini youth of many religions at the Sacred Heart School in Isa Town. In his address to the young people, Francis urged them to “break down many social and cultural barriers, and to foster the growth of fraternity and innovation.” In his speech to the youth, he mentioned that he was impressed with how they embraced each other’s differences while building lasting relationships and friendships. It is interesting to note that Sacred Heart School serves a diverse religious population in Bahrain including Catholics, Muslims, and other faiths.
The Pope also used his platform to discuss social issues such as the usage of the death penalty in Bahrain, and women’s rights. Upon arrival to Bahrain, Francis met with Bahraini political leaders, and strongly advocated for the government to repeal its usage of the death penalty saying that “human rights could not be assured for all” if the country kept it as part of their penal code. It is important to note that the Bahraini kingdom uses the death penalty beyond criminal cases, especially as a tool to prevent political dissidence, protests, and human rights, and to discriminate against the Shiite population. Furthermore, the kingdom is led by Sunnis, but the country’s population is a Shiite majority and that means their leadership is similar to a system of apartheid that is based on religion rather than race. The Bahraini Sunni leadership has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses, and Pope Francis also called for equitable treatment of immigrants, dissidents, and women.
When Pope Francis left Bahrain to return to Rome at the end of his trip, he also advocated for increasing women’s rights. In a session with the press, he mentioned that women should not have to fight for their rights. It is interesting to note that the Pope is calling out other countries for their treatment of women, but yet, women are still not able to become priests, cardinals bishops, deacons, or popes in the Roman Catholic Church. Is this potentially a bit of hypocrisy on the Pope’s part?
Finally, the Pope met with political and diplomatic leaders during his trip to urge everyone to seek peaceful options to solve the world’s many crises. He also met with Sunni and Shiite leaders where he hoped to serve as a neutral party to two groups that have been at odds over certain religious practices and teachings in Islam for centuries.
Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manama, Bahrain
Perhaps, one of the most joyous events that held much pomp and circumstance during the Pope’s visit to Bahrain was when he celebrated Sunday Mass at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manama! According to Reuters, Sacred Heart is also the Gulf region’s oldest Catholic church which frequently brings in other Catholic worshippers from neighboring nations such as Saudi Arabia and other countries where the public practice of any other religion than Islam is forbidden. The church has beautiful stained-glass windows. In addition, the Pope and bishops wore flourishing red and white vestments that seem to reminisce the flag colors of Bahrain, and he also served as the celebrant for Mass at this historic church.
Everyone can even relive the trip to Bahrain since the Vatican put together a brief highlights video of his spectacular visit around the country!
Pope Francis’s visit to Bahrain was a whirlwind trip. In three days, he met with national and religious leaders, engaged in interfaith dialogue, discussed social and gender issues, and advocated for the preservation of human rights worldwide. He also had the opportunity to celebrate a Mass at the Bahrain National Stadium where he spoke to thousands of Catholics from Bahrain and neighboring countries and then he served as the celebrant during Sunday Mass at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manama. Finally, Pope Francis continues his mission of reaching out to countries in the Arab World. Last year, it was Iraq, this year, Bahrain, and then the main question to ask is, where will he go in the future? Finally, Pope Francis continued his goodwill mission of promoting the Catholic faith, cooperation, and peace worldwide.
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Claire Boyle is a contributing writer for Arab America. From January to June 2021, she was a senior intern for Arab America. Claire is a(n) historian, having earned a(n) MA in History, With Distinction, from DePaul University and a BA in Global Studies, Magna Cum Laude, with a Minor in Arabic, and an Emphasis in Interfaith Studies from Benedictine University. She currently works for the Arab America Foundation in membership and as an assistant. Claire enjoys writing about Arab World history and culture, particularly about Morocco, where she studied abroad many years ago, and the stories of Arab Americans.