If the Pope has stood out for anything since his arrival at the Vatican in 2013, it has been for his desire to bring the Church closer to all corners of the world, even those in which they do not share ideas. Already in 2019 he made a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates to address a topic that, now, on his second trip to the Gulf region, he is once again highlighting, namely interreligious dialogue. In this way, he once again shows his concern for understanding and the will to live together with the rest of the world's religions.
Pope Francis travels this afternoon to Bahrain where he will first meet with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at the Sakhir Palace. It will be there that the highest representative of the Church is expected to give his first speech to the authorities of the Arab country. Later, he will address the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue "East and West for Human Coexistence", an event which, together with the meeting he will hold on Friday with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, have brought the Pope to Arab lands for the second time in three years.
It is important to remember that it was the latter with whom Pope Francis met in 2019 to sign a historic document on human fraternity, an aspect that will be on the table again this time. In addition, Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Mahmoud, a member of Bahrain's Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, said that this meeting between two such important religious figures is "an honour for Bahrain". He added his message of welcome and his perception of the Pope as "one of the means to spread love between people and spread knowledge between them".
This trip - the 39th since Francis arrived at the Vatican nearly a decade ago - will have a high point in his visit to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest church on the Arabian Peninsula inaugurated late last year. The flags of the Vatican and Bahrain fly together, while numerous portraits of the Pope cover the walls and the churchyard. All of this is accompanied by the motto that will be present throughout his visit to Bahrain: "On earth, peace to men of goodwill".
These signs of openness and fraternity on the part of Bahrain are proof that "freedom of religion and worship are rights protected by the constitution, and the kingdom does not tolerate discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on race, culture or belief". And it is not only words that demonstrate this willingness to understand between cultures. According to the Vatican, 80,000 Catholic Christians live in the region between Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Moreover, the Pope will officiate at a mass next Saturday at Bahrain's National Stadium, where around 28,000 believers from Qatar and neighbouring Gulf countries are expected to attend. The Pope will also have time to visit the Sacred Heart Church, the oldest church in Manama, the Bahraini capital, before leaving on Sunday. Xavier Marian D'Souza, the parish priest there, told Al Arab that "after COVID-19, it is a joy for this family (the believers in Bahrain)". He added that "he (Pope Francis) will definitely give us his blessing".