The last two days has seen Pope Francis in the Kingdom of Bahrain, a Gulf State and an archipelago nation off the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, close to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran.
This visit has been historic so far as Pope Francis became the first pope to visit Bahrain, upon a cordial invitation from His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain.
But, what is Bahrain to Christians and why might we know it?
Bahrain became well-known in the early 2011 Arab Spring for what many critics deemed their harsh treatment of their Shia majority population by their Sunni led Royal Family and authorities.
Many people across the Christian World cheered on many of these rebellions without the knowledge that many of the groups and people supporting them and who were active in them were adversaries to our own religion and our own alliances in this part of the world.
And thus, many people have come to expect Bahrain to be religiously intolerant, but in fact, this is especially not true for Christians in the region.
Bahrain exists in a complex area where the land is considered sacred by conservative Muslims, so much so that many claim the existence of Christians, let alone a church, should be banned.
But, Bahrain has quite a long history countering these narratives.
In fact, Bahrain is a very important country for the Arab World Christians, as it became the first Gulf State to feature a Catholic church in the modern era back in 1939. This church is called Sacred Heart Catholic Church and it still stands today.
When Bahrain became independent in 1971, Bahrain also became unique in granting citizenship to their native Bahraini Christians and the Iraqi, Jordanian, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Indian Christians who had fled to the island over the years. In contrast, many of the nations around it only give Christians residency, and only some have recently extended citizenship to Christians too.
The Christians in Bahrain are predominantly Eastern Orthodox, but recently the Christian expatriate community moving in have been mostly Catholic, mainly from the Philippines and India.
In the present-day, Bahrain continues to make inroads with the Christian community.
For example, HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has stood by Christians, even when at the heart of the Arab Spring, it became popular to scapegoat the Christians via calls by Islamic clerics. Instead of succumbing to their anti-Christian demands, and risking an even larger rebellion, HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa continued his policies of religious toleration toward his Christian subjects and blessed them with a new Catholic church, the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, which opened in 2021 and is the largest Catholic church in the Gulf States.
Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral was built to serve as the new headquarters and see of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia. Before this new cathedral was built, the Holy Family Co-Cathedral in Kuwait was its only see.
This church does not just serve Bahrain, however, but also serves Saudi Arabia as Saudi Arabia restricts Christian churches and masses on its territory.
And thus, Pope Francis's journey to Bahrain is really seen as a second holy trip to the Arabian Peninsula, and coincidentally, he is promoting the same teachings: religious coexistence and peace.
Pope Francis's first journey to the Arabian Peninsula came in 2019 in the United Arab Emirates at the invitation of His Holiness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a true trailblazer for religious tolerance who sadly past away earlier this year. Here, Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb, widely considered to be the closest equivalent to the Pope in Sunni Islam.
This document signaled a new beginning for the historic warring religions where instead of fighting, they would work together in peace and to co-exist side by side.
This came at a turning point in the Arabian Peninsula where the Abraham Accords were soon signed between the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and the State of Israel under mediation from the United States of America, opening up Jewish-Islamic relations as well.
And now in 2022, the Holy See and its Head of State, the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, is representing the Catholic Church at Bahrain's first Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence.
On the first day, Pope Francis already made his presence known.
He called on world leaders to end discrimination and human rights violations.
Pope Francis stated religious freedom should be “complete and not limited to freedom of worship."
And, Pope Francis stated that we should "guarantee that working conditions everywhere are safe and dignified."
Perhaps most notable was Pope Francis's calls to end the death penalty, something the Shia community was hoping Pope Francis would say. Since the Arab Spring, the Bahraini Government has been very suspicious of the rebellious population because they have reportedly found that Iranian Government sponsored the Shia-backed rebellions. And as such, many Shias have alleged the regime of torturing, killing, forcing confessions, lacking rights, and incorrectly branding many political opponents (mostly Shias) of being terrorists. Bahrain denies these accusations and Pope Francis is not alleging any group of these crimes.
Nonetheless, Pope Francis did a very good job balancing his Christian duty to call out injustice, but also to not judge people in his addresses. By not accusing his gracious hosts or others in the region, he is opening a pathway for dialogue that can lessen tensions and create changes where they need to happen.
On the second day, Pope Francis finished his addresses to the Forum.
He touched on many key points.
First, he said how religious leaders must set a good example and commit themselves to healing and serving our wounded family amidst the backdrop of wars.
He went on to state how we must seek encounter instead of confrontation, and how we should “not support 'alliances against some', but means of encounter with all.”
A great quote on this topic read: “It is a striking paradox that, while the majority of the world’s population is united in facing the same difficulties, suffering from grave food, ecological and pandemic crises, as well as an increasingly scandalous global injustice, a few potentates are caught up in a resolute struggle for partisan interests, reviving obsolete rhetoric, redesigning spheres of influence and opposing blocs.”
Pope Francis continued with how we cannot only focus on the major conflicts that are immediate, but we must also focus on the lasting conflicts that are common such as “the catastrophic inequality whereby the majority of people on our planet experience unprecedented injustice, the shameful scourge of hunger and the calamity of climate change, a sign of our lack of care for the common home.”
For Pope Francis, in order to achieve this goal of peace and universal justice, he stated to the Forum at the Al-Sakhir Palace this very important quote: “Let us teach others, and learn ourselves, how to view crises, problems, and wars through the eyes of children: this is not a mark of naiveté, but of farsighted wisdom, because only if we are concerned for them will progress be reflected in innocence rather than profit, and lead to the building of a better and more humane future.”
Pope Francis was very adamant that we must protect our children, and to do this, we must have proper education, because “ignorance is the enemy of peace” and “where opportunities for education are lacking, extremism increases and forms of fundamentalism take root.” Education is a friend of development, according to Pope Francis.
However, within this education, we must seek to ask questions and allow others to as well. Pope Francis called out the censorship of education and other aspects of life linking it to the despotism, selfishness, and close-mindedness of foreign policy: “For it is not enough to say we are tolerant [and] [w]e really have to make room for others, granting them rights and opportunities.”
With this new found openness, Pope Francis hopes to encourage us to embrace freedom of religion: “Let us commit ourselves, then, to ensuring that the freedom of creatures reflects the sovereign freedom of the Creator, that places of worship are always and everywhere protected and respected, and that prayer is favored and never hindered.”
According to Pope Francis, “God instructs us to exercise the divine gift of freedom of choice” and “compelled religion cannot bring a person into a meaningful relationship with God,” thus making religious coercion “unworthy of the Almighty, since He has not handed the world over to slaves, but to free creatures, whom He fully respects”.
Pope Francis continued his address focusing on two concepts: women and citizenship.
Pope Francis stressed how we must create environments where women truly have a right “to education, to employment, [to] their freedom to exercise their social and political rights.”
Pope Francis then stated the importance of doing away with minorities to create full citizenship and lessen alienation: “Here, commitment is demanded, so that we can establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority. Its misuse paves the way for hostility and discord; it undoes any successes and takes away the religious and civil rights of some citizens who are thus discriminated against.”
Lastly, Pope Francis spoke of the need for religious figures to not simply label their religion as peaceful, but to also actively call out abuses of religious beliefs used for crime and attacks against humanity and fight those who commit these crimes and attacks: “It is not enough to proclaim that a religion is peaceful; we need to condemn and isolate the perpetrators of violence who abuse its name. Nor is it enough to distance ourselves from intolerance and extremism; we need to counter them.”
While these first two days were historic, there is more in-store for the over 80,000 Catholics and nearly 14% of the nation that calls itself Christian.
Tomorrow, Pope Francis will say mass at the Bahrain National Stadium and on Sunday, he will depart from the Gulf State.