Bahraini Shiites hope the Pope will raise human rights during the visit

Pope Francis is making the first papal trip to Bahrain this week, sparking calls from the country’s Shiite opposition and human rights activists for the pontiff to raise concerns about human rights in the small island nation.

The island off the coast of Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Sunni monarchy that violently suppressed the 2011 Arab Spring protests there with the help of its allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In the years since, Bahrain has jailed Shiite activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship, banned the largest Shiite opposition and closed its leading independent newspaper.

“There is a huge elephant in the room in this situation,” said Devin Kenney, Amnesty International’s Bahrain researcher. “The watchword of this visit is coexistence and dialogue, and the government of Bahrain is suppressing political and civil liberties, without which coexistence and dialogue cannot be maintained.”

Bahrain maintains that it respects human rights and freedom of speech, despite facing repeated criticism from local and international rights activists, as well as UN special rapporteurs on human rights.

Francis is making the Nov. 3-6 visit to attend a government-sponsored conference on East-West dialogue and minister to Bahrain’s tiny Catholic community, part of his effort to continue dialogue with the Muslim world.

While some Shiite opposition leaders welcome the visit, they hope Francis will not sidestep the issue of decades of sectarian strife.

“The people of Bahrain are living under the influence of sectarian persecution, discrimination, intolerance and systematic government repression,” said Al-Wefaq, an opposition Shiite party that was outlawed and disbanded by court order in 2016.

The 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 key 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 Muslim leaders in Bahrain, he will also hold Mass at the national stadium for the country’s Catholic community, most of whom are expatriate workers from the Philippines and India.

Asked if he would raise human rights concerns during the visit, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni cited Francis’ frequent calls for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

“The position of the Holy See and the Pope on religious freedom and liberty is clear and known,” Bruni told reporters at the Vatican. He declined to say whether Francis would address the Bahraini government’s treatment of its Shiite community in any way.

The island kingdom – about the size of New York City and with a population of about 1.5 million – has also struggled with chronic financial problems.

Bahrain, which means “Two Seas” in Arabic, discovered its first oil well in 1931 — the first of its Gulf Arab neighbors. Today, however, it remains tens of billions of dollars in debt and relies on donations from neighbors to stay afloat. Its capital, Manama, aspires to become a financial hub, but has been overshadowed by neighboring Dubai.

Bishop Paul Hinder, the Catholic apostolic administrator of Bahrain and neighboring countries, said competition with other Gulf Arab nations likely led the Al Khalifa royal family, which has ruled Bahrain since the late 1700s, to invite Francis. in the country.

Hinder said he expected any “troublesome” issues regarding Bahraini Shiites to be raised by the pope, but “behind the curtains” and not necessarily in public remarks.

“I know a little bit about the style of this part of the world,” Hinder said. “They don’t like open criticism.”

Bahraini human rights groups, almost all in exile amid a years-long crackdown on dissent, are openly critical of the monarchy.

The Bahraini government is practicing “palpable religious persecution” and discriminating against Bahrainis, said Jawad Fairuz, president of Bahrain’s Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. The former lawmaker living in exile in Europe pointed to the arrest and exile of senior religious leaders — as well as hundreds of other prisoners.

“We see that the atmosphere in Bahrain is not suitable to host an interfaith gathering,” Fairooz said, adding that the state is pursuing a “systemic campaign that goes against these principles.”

Regional politics play a role in Bahrain’s crackdown. Bahrain has accused Iran’s Shiite theocracy – across the Persian Gulf from Manama – of fomenting dissent and arming militants to destabilize the country, which Tehran denies. Shiite militant groups have carried out low-level attacks in the country.

Bahrain’s government, in response to a series of questions from The Associated Press, said the island “is proud of its values ​​of tolerance and its long history of peaceful coexistence.”

“Freedom of religion and worship are constitutionally protected rights and the kingdom has a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination, persecution or promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or creed,” the government said.

While overt police crackdowns have faded in recent years, government policies still disproportionately push Bahraini Shiites into satellite villages and downplay their history, said Simon Mabon, a professor who studies the Middle East at Lancaster University in the UK. The country’s media also remains tightly silenced, while critical journalists have had their government-issued press cards revoked.

“It’s done so subtly and precisely,” Mabon said. “It’s insidious.”

Nury Turkel, president of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he would like to see Francis raise with the Bahraini government some of the issues that might make it “uncomfortable”, such as concerns about the treatment of the Shiite majority .

“The country, in general, is quite tolerant of its Christian population, and the Pope’s visit should not overshadow this systematic discrimination against Shia Muslims,” ​​Turkel said.

Despite ongoing concerns, the US panel in its report last year, based on the terms of religious freedom in 2020, for the first time in years did not recommend that Bahrain be placed on the US State Department’s Special Watch List. The change, the report said, reflected “continuous improvements” in the government’s approach to the Shiite majority in 2020.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Fam from Cairo. Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage is supported through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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