Pope Francis flew on Thursday morning for a four-day visit to Bahrain, the first by a pontiff to the small Gulf kingdom where he is expected to insist on dialogue with Islam, amid calls for NGOs to uphold human rights.
The 85-year-old pontige, whose plane took off from Rome's Fiumicino airport, is expected in Awali (center) where he will be received by Sunni King Hamad ben Issa al-Khalifa, before delivering a speech in front of the authorities and the diplomatic corps at the palace of Al-Sakhir.
An island state of 1,4 million inhabitants, Bahrain formalized its diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 2000 and has some 80.000 Catholics according to the Vatican, mainly from Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Western countries.
But this visit, the 39th abroad for Francis and the second to the Arabian Peninsula since his historic trip to the United Arab Emirates in 2019, should above all give pride of place to interreligious dialogue, of which he is a fervent defender.
The Pope will speak on Friday before the "Council of Muslim Elders" at the Royal Palace Mosque and will meet the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, a respected institution of Sunni Islam, with whom he had signed in Abu Dhabi a founding document on human brotherhood.
"The meeting of these two Muslim and Christian figures is an honor for Bahrain," Sheikh Dr. Abdul Latif Al-Mahmoud, a member of Bahrain's Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, told AFP.
Organized as part of a forum for dialogue between East and West, this visit is however singled out by human rights organizations which denounce in particular discrimination against the country's Shiite community.
On Tuesday, nine NGOs called on the pope to “publicly demand that Bahrain end all executions, abolish the death penalty and seriously investigate allegations of torture and violations of the right to a fair trial”.
In a report published on Monday, Human Rights Watch criticized a "targeted marginalization" of the political opposition, saying that "Bahrain cannot be called a democracy".
For its part, the country intends to play the card of religious tolerance to soften its international image. The government also reacted by assuring that “freedom of religion and worship are rights protected by the Constitution”.
“The Kingdom does not tolerate discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith,” he added.
Two weeks before the start of the controversial World Cup in neighboring Qatar, the pope could also discuss the rights of immigrant workers and the defense of the environment, two themes dear to his pontificate.
Along the roads, yellow and white flags of the Vatican are next to those of the country and posters with the effigy of the Argentinian Jesuit have been installed as at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church on the peninsula, inaugurated in December 2021.
On Saturday, the pope will celebrate a mass in a stadium at which some 28.000 Christians are expected, especially from neighboring Gulf countries.
"After the Covid, it is a joy that this family (Catholic community of Bahrain) returns" to the church, welcomes Father Xavier Marian D'Souza, pastor of the Church of the Sacred Heart where the Pope will go. sunday.
Since his election in 2013, the leader of the 1,3 billion Catholics has visited a dozen Muslim-majority countries, including Jordan, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Bangladesh, Morocco and Iraq.
Still weakened by knee pain, the pope, who had to use a lifting platform to board his plane, now moves around in a wheelchair. He had confided in mid-September that his knee pain was "not yet cured".
The Editorial Board (with AFP)