Pope arrives on first trip to Bahrain, with rights in spotlight

AFP , Thursday 3 Nov 2022

Pope Francis, leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics, on Thursday began a trip to Bahrain aimed at fostering dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Pope Francis (C) and Bahrain s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (R) stand during a welcoming ceremony i
Pope Francis (C) and Bahrain s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (R) stand during a welcoming ceremony in the capital Manama on November 3, 2022. AFP


The first papal visit to the island nation is this pontiff's second voyage as pope to the Arabian peninsula, after a 2019 trip to the United Arab Emirates also aimed at inter-faith outreach.

The pope, 85, who is using a wheelchair due to knee problems, used an electronic platform to board the plane and broke with his usual practice of greeting journalists on arrival.

Uniformed guards on horseback and Vatican and Bahrain flags lined the route of his short journey to the lavish Sakhir Royal Palace, where he was greeted by a crowd of cheering children.

During his trip, which lasts until Sunday, he will meet Bahrain's king, hold an open-air mass and lead a prayer for peace at a vast modern cathedral opened last year.

Francis is set to conduct a courtesy visit with King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa following a welcoming ceremony, and then give a speech to authorities, diplomats and members of civil society.

On Friday, Francis will address the "Bahrain Dialogue Forum: East and West for Human Coexistence", organised by the UAE-based Muslim Council of Elders.

'Banner of dialogue'

Afterwards, he will hold a private meeting with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of the prestigious Cairo-based Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest Sunni institution.

The two religious leaders signed a joint document pledging interfaith coexistence during Francis' UAE trip in 2019.

The Argentine pope has made outreach to Muslim communities a priority during his papacy, visiting major Muslim countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, and most recently in September, Kazakhstan.

On Tuesday, Francis asked the faithful assembled on Saint Peter's Square to pray for his upcoming trip, calling it "a journey under the banner of dialogue".

Ahead of the voyage, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told journalists that the pope's view "concerning religious freedom and liberty is clear and known".

'Prayer for peace'

Friday's "prayer for peace" will be held at the cavernous Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral in Awali, which seats more than 2,000 people and opened in December.

It was built to serve Bahrain's approximately 80,000 Catholics, mainly workers from southern Asia, including India and the Philippines.

On Saturday, Francis will lead mass at Bahrain's national stadium before a crowd of nearly 30,000 people, where workers on Wednesday were adding finishing touches, including a giant gold cross above Francis' chair.

Francis will preside over a prayer meeting with Catholic clergy and others on Sunday before returning to Rome.

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