Pope Francis in Bahrain: Holy Father Caps Historic Voyage With a Plea for Continued Dialogue With Islam
The Pontiff journeyed as a ‘sower of peace’ during his Nov. 3-6 trip.
VATICAN CITY — In a historic papal first, Pope Francis completed a four-day apostolic journey to the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, during which he sought to deepen dialogue with Islam and Christians, especially the Orthodox.
Francis, already the first pope to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula, became the first head of the Catholic Church to visit Bahrain, a small archipelago in the Persian Gulf that has a total population of 1.5 million, 70% of whom are Muslim.
Catholics number 161,000, many of whom are migrants from Asia, particularly the Philippines and India, according to 2020 Vatican statistics. The country is home to two Catholic churches and 20 Catholic priests.
The theme of the Nov. 3-6 visit, “Peace on Earth to People of Goodwill,” inspired by Luke 2:14, was centered around Francis’ attendance on Nov. 4 at the closing ceremony of a two-day “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence.”
The event was an initiative of the Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence, an organization set up by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to promote a culture of cooperation and dialogue.
Addressing the gathering in the presence of Mohammed Al Tayeb, the grand imam of the Cairo-based Al Azhar University, Francis warned that the world is “on the brink of a delicate precipice,” facing war and other calamities. He said certain nations, without specifically naming the Ukraine war and the countries involved, are creating a “dramatic and childish scenario” by “playing with fire.”
Conflicts, he warned, will persist if “despotic, imperialist, nationalist and populist visions” are imposed and ears are closed to “ordinary people” and the poor. People are “simplistically” divided into “good and bad,” he observed, and no attempts are made to “understand one another and to cooperate for the good of all.”
He appealed for an end to “divergences between East and West” and the “gap between the North and South of the world” and drew attention to “less evident tragedies,” such as “catastrophic inequality” and “the shameful scourge of hunger and the calamity of climate change.”
To combat all of these, he focused on “three challenges”: prayer, facilitated by religious freedom; education, including “three urgent priorities” of women’s rights, children’s rights and citizenship without discrimination; and action, including the non-financing of terrorism, ending the “commerce of war,” and working toward “fraternity, dialogue and peace” without yielding to “relativism or syncretism of any sort.”
Without explicitly mentioning Christ at all in his speech, Francis called on those present to encounter one another “in the name of the One who loves humanity, the One whose name is peace,” and he appealed for “concrete initiatives” to create “a conscience of peace for our world.”
In his speech, Al-Tayeb joined Francis in calling for an end to the war in Ukraine. Both religious leaders made reference to the “Document on Human Fraternity,” which they signed in Abu Dhabi in 2019 and is aimed at fostering closer Catholic-Muslim relations.
Addressing King Hamad and the country’s civic leaders in his first discourse of the visit, Pope Francis spoke out against capital punishment in the country by calling for fundamental human rights to be respected.
“I think in the first place of the right to life, of the need to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken,” the Pope said.
He added that he was there as a “sower of peace” and warned against “indifference and mutual distrust, the burgeoning of rivalries and conflicts that we had hoped were a thing of the past, and forms of populism, extremism and imperialism that jeopardize the security of all.”
He also appealed for protection of the environment, lower unemployment levels and an end to dehumanizing work. He also condemned war, recalling the “forgotten war” in Yemen.
After the interfaith meeting on Nov. 4, the Pope met Christian leaders, including Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, during which he called for the restoration of Christian unity, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In a speech reflecting on Pentecost, he said, “what unites us far exceeds what divides us” and that the more Christians journey according to the Holy Spirit, the more likely God will help “restore full unity among us.”
The meeting took place in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the first cathedral in Bahrain, which was consecrated last year and built on land given by King Hamad.
At Holy Mass in Bahrain’s national stadium, on Nov. 5, attended by some 30,000 people, the Pope recalled the “great power” the “Prince of Peace” has in reconciliation, saying Christ’s power “does not come from the force of violence, but from the weakness of love.” Reflecting on how the Lord’s unconditional and always present love is for everyone, the Pope said Jesus’ vision “is completely practical” and not “about sentimental or romantic love.” Jesus, he said, “is not idealistic, but realistic.”
At a meeting with youth at Sacred Heart School in Awali after the Mass, the Pope responded to questions from a number of young people, telling them how to hear the Lord’s voice through prayer and to build a relationship first and foremost with one’s heart and soul. Try, he said, “to be silent and listen to it.”
He also urged them to seek advice not from the internet first, but from “good counselors,” such as parents, teachers, the elderly, grandparents, “and a good spiritual guide.”
One of the Pope’s last engagements was to greet bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful from the region at Sacred Heart Church in the capital, Manama.
The Pope said all the baptized have received the Holy Spirit, and “so become prophets,” and as such “we cannot pretend not to see the works of evil, so as to live a ‘quiet life’ and not get our hands dirty.”
“On the contrary, he said, “we received a Spirit of prophecy to proclaim the Gospel by our living witness.” Prophecy, he continued, “makes us capable of putting the Beatitudes into practice in everyday situations, building meekly, yet resolutely, God’s kingdom, in which love, justice and peace are opposed to every form of selfishness, violence and degradation.”
Reflecting on Christian joy, he said this should not be “dimmed or left unshared in Christian communities” or restricted by doing things out of habit, “without enthusiasm or creativity.”
He again called for peace and expressed hope that a recent agreement to end what has been described as a genocidal war in Ethiopia will last. He called on the faithful to pray for a lasting peace there, as well as “for tormented Ukraine, for that war to end.”