VATICAN CITY, Nov 3 (Reuters) – Pope Francis leaves on Thursday for Bahrain, a trip aimed at improving ties with the Islamic world but which could thrust him into a human rights conflict between the Sunni-led monarchy and its Shi’ite Muslim opposition.
It is only the second visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, following his 2019 visit to the United Arab Emirates, when he became the first pontiff to visit and say a Mass in the peninsula.
“The pope is moving forward with a certain logic to open new paths to the different realities of the Muslim world,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, who has worked in the region for nearly two decades and is the Vatican’s apostolic vicar for Southern Arabia.
During the Nov. 3-6 trip, Francis is due to address the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence,” have talks with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and meet with the Muslim Council of Elders in a mosque in the royal palace compound.
Bahrain is about 70% Muslim and, unlike Saudi Arabia, allows its small community of about 160,000 Catholics – made up mostly of foreign workers – to practice their faith publicly in two churches.
It is home to the first Catholic church to be built in the Gulf area in modern times, which opened in 1939, as well as the cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church on the Arabian Peninsula.
While the pope’s visit is a dream come true for the island state’s Catholics, it has drawn attention to tensions between the Sunni-led government and the Shi’ite community that led a sizeable pro-democracy uprising in the 2011 “Arab Spring”, which Bahrain quashed with Saudi and UAE help.
Bahrain has imprisoned thousands of protesters, journalists and activists – some in mass trials – since the uprising and cracked down on later sporadic unrest and dissent.
Families of death row inmates in Bahrain have appealed to the Argentine-born pope to speak out against capital punishment and defend political prisoners during his trip.
The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and other human rights groups have urged the pope to speak out on what they say are rights abuses, including the imprisonment of pro-democracy dissidents.
Bahrain rejects criticism from the United Nations and others over its conduct of trials and detention conditions. It says it prosecutes in accordance with international law and that its legal and judicial system continues to be reformed.
A Bahrain government spokesperson, in response to a Reuters request for comment, said in a statement that “no individual in the Kingdom is arrested or in custody because of their beliefs” and that the constitution protects freedom of expression.
Hinder said he believed that while the pope may discuss human rights broadly in public, any Vatican mention of the appeals by the Shi’ite Muslims or their advocates would be made in private.
Bahrain has said the interfaith forum it is hosting during the pope’s visit aims to “further cement the values of peace and tolerance,” including dialogue to promote coexistence.
Bahrain, along with the UAE, forged ties with Israel in 2020 under U.S.-brokered pacts known as the Abraham Accords.