Pope Francis is making the first-ever papal trip to Bahrain this week, sparking calls from the country’s majority Shiite opposition and human rights activists for the pontiff to raise human rights concerns in the small island nation.
The island off the coast of Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Sunni monarchy that violently quashed 2011 Arab Spring protests there with the aid of allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the years since, Bahrain has imprisoned Shiite activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship, banned the largest Shiite opposition group and closed down its leading independent newspaper.
“There’s a huge elephant in the room in this situation,” said Devin Kenney, Amnesty International’s Bahrain researcher. “The watchwords of this visit are coexistence and dialogue and the Bahraini government suppresses civil and political freedoms, without which coexistence and dialogue cannot be sustained.”
Bahrain maintains it respects human rights and freedom of speech, despite facing repeated criticism by local and international rights activists, as well as U.N. human rights special rapporteurs.
Francis is making the Nov. 3-6 visit to participate in a government-sponsored conference on East-West dialogue and to minister to Bahrain’s tiny Catholic community, part of his effort to pursue dialogue with the Muslim world.
While some Shiite opposition leaders welcome the visit, they hope Francis won’t sidestep the issue of decades of sectarian strife.
“The people of Bahrain live under the influence of sectarian persecution, discrimination, intolerance and systematic governmental repression,” said Al-Wefaq, a opposition Shiite party outlawed and dismantled by court order in 2016.
This 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 major 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 with Muslim leaders in Bahrain, he will also celebrate Mass in the national stadium for the country’s Catholic community, most of whom are expatriate laborers from the Philippines and India.
Asked if he will raise human rights concerns during the visit, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni cited Francis’ frequent calls for religious liberty and interfaith dialogue.
“The position of the Holy See and the pope concerning religious freedom and liberty is clear and is 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 around 1.5 million — has also struggled with years of economic problems.
Bahrain, which means “Two Seas” in Arabic, discovered its first oil well in 1931 — the first among its Gulf Arab neighbors. Today though, it remains tens of billions of dollars in debt and reliant on handouts from neighbors to keep afloat. Its capital, Manama, has aspired to becoming a financial hub but has been eclipsed by neighboring Dubai.
Bishop Paul Hinder, the Catholic apostolic administrator of Bahrain and neighboring countries, said competition with other Gulf Arab nations likely drove the Al Khalifa royal family, which has ruled Bahrain since the late 1700s, to invite Francis to the country.
Hinder said he expected any “problematic” issues about Bahrain’s Shiites would be raised by the pope, but “behind the curtains” and not necessarily in public remarks.
“I know the style of this part of the world a bit,” Hinder said. “They don’t like open criticism.”
Bahraini human rights groups, nearly all in exile amid a yearslong crackdown on dissent, openly criticize the monarchy.
The Bahraini government practices “tangible religious persecution” and discrimination among Bahrainis, said Jawad Fairooz, chairman of Bahrain’s Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. The former legislator who lives in exile in Europe pointed to the arrest and exile of senior religious figures — as well as hundreds of others detained.
“We see that the atmosphere in Bahrain is not suitable to host an interfaith gathering,” Fairooz said, adding that the state follows a “systemic campaign that contradicts 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, something 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, contended the island “prides itself on its values of tolerance and its long history of peaceful co-existence.”
“Freedom of religion and worship are protected rights under the constitution, and the kingdom has a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith,” the government said.
While overt police crackdowns have faded in recent years, government policies still disproportionally push Bahrain’s Shiites into satellite villages and downplay their history, said Simon Mabon, a professor who studies the Middle East at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. The country’s media also remains tightly muzzled while critical journalists have had their government-issued press cards revoked.
“It’s done so subtly and granularly,” Mabon said. “It’s insidious.”
Nury Turkel, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he would like to see Francis raise with the Bahraini government some of the issues that may make it “uncomfortable,” such as concerns over the treatment of the Shiite majority.
“The country, generally, is quite tolerant of its Christian population and the pope’s visit should not overshadow this systematic discrimination against the Shiite Muslims,” Turkel said.
Despite lingering concerns, the U.S. commission in its report last year, based on religious freedom conditions in 2020, for the first time in years did not recommend Bahrain be placed on the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List. The change, the report said, reflected “ongoing improvements” in the government’s approach toward the Shiite majority in 2020.