Pope Francis arrived in Bahrain on a three-day visit, which marks the first visit of a Vatican head to the Gulf kingdom.
The plane carrying the Pope arrived in Sakhir, where he met King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at the royal palace.
This is Pope Francis’ second trip to the Gulf region, after his trip to the UAE in 2019.
On Friday, the Pope will address the “Bahrain Dialogue Forum: East and West for Human Coexistence”, organized by the Council of Muslim Elders, based in the UAE, followed by a special meeting with Sheikh Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
The two religious leaders had signed a joint document on interfaith coexistence during Francis’ trip to the UAE.
Pope Francis made contact with Muslim communities a priority for him during his papal tenure, as he visited some Islamic countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, and visited Kazakhstan in September.
Pope’s health condition
Pope Francis’ knee pain was so bad on his way to Bahrain Thursday that he was unable to get around the papal plane to welcome the reporters accompanying him as he usually does. The 85-year-old pope has been walking with a cane since he ruptured a ligament in his knee early this year and sometimes uses a wheelchair, but during flights he has been able to walk in the plane to exchange a few words with the Vatican press corps. “Today I’m in a lot of pain and I’m not ready to move in the plane, so I will sit down and you come to me,” Francis said. He said he had physical therapy on Wednesday, but his knee usually hurts the next day. Despite the pain, Francis seemed to be in good spirits.
“It will be an interesting journey that will make us think,” Francis said.
Human rights in Bahrain
Before he reached Bahrain, human rights groups appealed to the Pope to raise the issue of the Shiite community and allegations of violations against activists and figures opposed to the government in the kingdom, during scheduled meetings with the Bahraini king and religious leaders.
On Sunday, the Pope is scheduled to hold a mass for Catholics in Bahrain, who are mostly foreign workers from India and the Philippines.
But criticism of Bahrain’s human rights record had already begun before Pope Francis set out on his journey.
The 85-year-old, who may use a wheelchair most of the time due to his knee pain, arrived at 4.45pm local time.
On Tuesday, Francis asked those gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for his next trip, describing it as “a journey under the banner of dialogue.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told reporters before the trip that he could not guess if Francis would address the issue of human rights.
But he added that the Pope’s view “with regard to religious freedom is clear and well known.”
A spokesman for the Bahraini government has rejected the allegations of human rights groups, and said Tuesday that Bahrain “does not tolerate discrimination”, and no one is being prosecuted because of his religious or political beliefs.
Human Rights Watch and eight other groups have called on Francis to publicly pressure Bahrain to “stop executions and abolish the death penalty, and seriously investigate allegations of torture and rights abuses in trials.”
She also called on the Pope to demand better protection for migrant workers, and the release of opposition figures, journalists and others who remain in detention since the crackdown that followed pro-democracy protests in 2011.
On Saturday, Francis will lead a mass at the Bahrain National Stadium in front of a crowd of about 30,000 people, which workers on Wednesday added finishing touches to it, including a huge golden cross on Francis’ chair.
It will provide about 2,000 sites for Catholics from Saudi Arabia, according to Archbishop Paul Hender, the Apostolic official in northern Arabia, told Vatican News.