Pope Francis is making the first-ever papal trip to Bahrain this week, sparking calls from the country’s majority Shia opposition and human rights activists for the pontiff to raise human rights concerns in the small island nation.
The island off the coast of Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Sunni monarchy that violently quashed 2011 Arab Spring protests there with the aid of allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the years since, Bahrain has imprisoned Shia activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship, banned the largest Shia opposition group and closed down its leading independent newspaper.
“There’s a huge elephant in the room in this situation,” said Devin Kenney, Amnesty International’s Bahrain researcher.
“The watchwords of this visit are coexistence and dialogue and the Bahraini government suppresses civil and political freedoms, without which coexistence and dialogue cannot be sustained.”
Bahrain maintains it respects human rights and freedom of speech, despite facing repeated criticism by local and international rights activists, as well as UN human rights special rapporteurs.
Francis is making the visit to participate in a government-sponsored conference on East-West dialogue and to minister to Bahrain’s tiny Catholic community, part of his effort to pursue dialogue with the Muslim world.
This visit marks Francis’ second trip to a Gulf Arab state and his second to a majority Muslim nation in as many months, evidence that dialogue with the Muslim world has become a major cornerstone of his nearly 10-year papacy.
He visited the United Arab Emirates in 2019 and traveled to Kazakhstan for a meeting of religious leaders in September.
In addition to meeting with Muslim leaders in Bahrain, he will also celebrate Mass in the national stadium for the country’s Catholic community, most of whom are expatriate laborers from the Philippines and India.
Asked if he will raise human rights concerns during the visit, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni cited Francis’ frequent calls for religious liberty and interfaith dialogue.