Pope Francis has travelled to Bahrain for his first visit to the Gulf country as part of the Bahrain Dialogue Forum: East and West for Human Coexistence. The pontiff was received by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who presented his nation as "a country of tolerance, coexistence and peace", where for centuries "an open and tolerant climate that accepts diverse cultures and religions with love" has developed. The Bahraini monarch also invited the Pope to discover and get to know this "land of coexistence", recalling the Declaration of the Kingdom of Bahrain, a document that celebrates diversity and "rejects religious discrimination and violence".
The Pope's trip to Bahrain aims to further deepen inter-religious dialogue and continue to promote tolerance among different faiths. The Catholic leader made a "historic" visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2019, where he signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Common Coexistence together with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayed, with whom he will also meet in Bahrain.
Since his arrival at the Vatican, the Pope has been committed to inter-religious understanding, and has thus approached Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, where he met with the Shiite religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
For Bahrain, this visit is also "historic", as Nivedita Dhadphale, a consultant at the Bahrain National Communication Centre, told Vatican News. "We have never had someone like the Pope to promote dialogue," she explains. Dhadphale also stresses the Gulf nation's religious diversity. "I've always liked the fact that the different religions that coexist here can celebrate their holidays freely, Muslims as well as Christians and Hindus".
During the Muslim holy day on Friday, the Pope will celebrate Mass, meet with members of the Council of Muslim Elders - an international organisation that promotes peace in Islamic communities - visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia - the largest Catholic church on the Arabian Peninsula - and meet privately with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, with whom he will plant the Tree of Peace, Vatican News reports.
During the meeting with the Council of Muslim Elders, a number of current issues will be discussed, including the humanitarian crises. Measures to support Muslim communities in need and to improve dialogue between the different branches of Islam, as well as Islamic-Christian relations, will also be presented.
The Pope's visit will conclude on Sunday, after celebrating Mass for Peace and Justice at Bahrain's National Stadium and meeting with young people at Sacred Heart College, as well as bishops, priests and seminarians. Before leaving for the airport, the pontiff will also pay a "strictly private" visit to the ancient Sacred Heart Church, built in 1939.
Pope Francis' trip to Bahrain comes days before the country's parliamentary elections on 12 November and on 8 November at embassies abroad. The Manama Dialogue Conference will also begin on 18-20 November, with economists, politicians, analysts and business people addressing the most prominent challenges in the Middle East to provide ideas and solutions to boost security and stability in the region.