VATICAN CITY (HPD) — Pope Francis carried his message of dialogue with the Muslim world Thursday to the kingdom of Bahrain, where the Sunni-led government is hosting an interfaith conference on coexistence between East and West, despite accusations of that discriminates against the country’s Shiite majority.
Human rights groups and relatives of Shia activists on death row have urged Francis to use his visit to call for the abolition of capital punishment and an end to political repression in Bahrain. But it was unclear whether Francis would publicly rebuke his hosts during his four-day visit, the first by a pope to the island nation in the Persian Gulf.
The 85-year-old pope, who has used a wheelchair for months due to strained knee ligaments, said on Thursday during the flight to Bahrain that he was in “a lot of pain” and for the first time greeted those from his seat. journalists traveling with him instead of walking up the aisle to the plane.
Francis has long defended dialogue as an instrument of peace and has called for signs of harmony between confessions, especially in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine and conflicts such as the one in Yemen. The pope asked for prayers on the eve of the trip that the trip furthers “the cause of brotherhood and peace, which our times urgently and desperately need.”
It is Francis’ second visit to a Persian Gulf country after his historic 2019 trip to Abu Dhabi, where he signed a document promoting brotherhood between Catholics and Muslims with a prominent Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. Al-Tayeb is the grand imam of Al-Azhar, a Sunni education center in Cairo. Francis then visited Iraq in 2021, where he was received by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the world’s foremost Shia clerics.
Francis will meet again this week in Bahrain with Al-Tayeb, as well as other prominent individuals expected to attend the conference, similar to the one hosted by Kazakhstan last month and also attended by Francis and Al-Tayeb. Members of the Muslim Council of Elders are expected to attend; Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians; a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church and American rabbis.
The trip will also allow the pope to meet with Bahrain’s small Catholic community of some 80,000 members in a country of some 1.5 million people. Most are workers from the Philippines and India, though trip organizers expect pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries to attend Francis’s grand mass at the national stadium on Saturday.
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