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Pope Francis in Bahrain: A Royal Reminder of Religious ‘Freedom of Choice’

The pontiff esteemed the welcome given to Christian migrants in the Gulf’s island kingdom, while discreetly calling for wider application.
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Pope Francis in Bahrain: A Royal Reminder of Religious ‘Freedom of Choice’
Image: Loredana Mantello / Getty Images
Pope Francis meets with King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (second from right) at the Sakhir Royal Palace on November 3, 2022.

After greeting Pope Francis last week with a red carpet, a 21-gun salute, and a contingent of horses to accompany his humble vehicle, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa highlighted one document to characterize his realm:

The 2017 Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.

“[Bahrain is] a cradle of mutual coexistence between followers of different faiths,” he said, “where everyone enjoys, under our protection after that of God Almighty, the freedom to perform their rituals and establish their places of worship, in an atmosphere of familiarity, harmony, and mutual understanding.”

With Bahraini flags flying side by side with the Vatican banner, Francis was profuse in his praise. Enduring severe knee pain, he noted the country’s centuries-old “Tree of Life,” a 32-foot acacia that somehow survives in the Arabian desert.

Bahrain honors its roots.

“One thing stands out in the history of this land: It has always been a place of encounter between different peoples,” said Francis. “This is in fact the life-giving water from which, today too, Bahrain’s roots continue to be nourished.”

In the island nation the size of New York City, flanked on either side by Iran and Saudi Arabia, from November 3–6 the pope visited its 160,000 Catholic migrants—primarily from the Philippines and India—living among a population of 1.5 million, evenly divided between foreign workers and citizens.

From 111 nationalities, 30,000 gathered this past Saturday at the national stadium for Mass.

Bahrain is a Sunni Muslim monarchy ruling over a narrow majority of Shiites. Christians comprise 10–14 percent of the population, with up to 1,000 Christian citizens originally from Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan who were present at the time of independence. Alongside a 200-year-old Hindu temple, a renovated synagogue hosts prayer for Bahrain’s few dozen Jewish citizens.

But beside pastoral responsibilities, Francis came prepared to preach.

At the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence, his message was a near homily on the 2017 declaration. Addressing over 200 religious leaders from the Gulf, he urged their leadership and introspection.

“It is not enough to grant permits and recognize freedom of worship,” Francis said. “It is necessary to achieve true freedom of religion.”

The Bahrain Declaration, one of several similar charters issued by Muslim nations in recent years, has two main distinctives. First, it was issued by the head of state, rather than an assembly of clerics and scholars. And second, where others spoke in clear defense of the rights of Christian minorities, King Hamad’s document asserted in general that “freedom of choice” is a “divine gift.”

Bahrain proscribes no legal punishment for apostasy.

Francis’ message to the forum was discreet, not drawing out the full implication of the declaration. And his targets were many. He spoke about the necessity of education to counter religious fundamentalism. He promoted the role of women in the public sphere. And he called listeners to oppose the agenda of the powerful that marginalizes the poor, the migrant, and the unborn child.

But he centered his speech on prayer and the “meaningful relationship with God” that can only come with religious freedom.

His envoy, speaking to the press, provided the cultural context.

“I know the style of this part of the world a bit,” said Paul Hinder, the Catholic bishop and apostolic administrator of Bahrain and neighboring countries. “They don’t like open criticism.”

He also echoed the papal praise.

“Religious liberty inside Bahrain is perhaps the best in the Arab world,” Hinder continued. “Even if everything isn’t ideal, there can be conversions [to Christianity], which aren’t at least officially punished like in other countries.”

The US State Department’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom notes that converts in Bahrain are reticent to speak out publicly—but from fear of family and social pressures, not government restrictions. And Abraham Cooper, vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), praised the declaration.

“Many people talk about religious tolerance, but Bahrain is living it,” said the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which hosted the 2017 signing. “Just cut and paste this declaration, and the world will become a better place.”

Francis’ visit was the 39th foreign trip of his papacy, in which dialogue with the Muslim world has been a prominent feature. Two months earlier he was in Kazakhstan, and Bahrain represented the 13th Muslim-majority location in his travelogue.

In 2019 in the United Arab Emirates, he cosponsored the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Egypt’s Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the foremost center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.

Francis referenced the document at the forum, and Tayyeb concurred.

“The Quran establishes … that man was created free and able to choose belief, religion, ideology, and doctrine,” he said. “It follows that they must be free to choose any faith.”

This is not yet true in many nations in the Islamic world.

In preparation for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP), observed on November 6 and 13, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) noted that 1.3 billion Muslims do not have the freedom to leave their faith, an act criminalized in 24 nations.

“The most dangerous thing you can do at the moment,” said WEA general secretary Thomas Schirrmacher, “is to convert from Islam to Christianity.”

But Bahrain is different, stated evangelical leaders.

“I don’t think it is that big a deal here,” said Johnnie Moore, invited by the king in his role as president of the Congress of Christian Leaders. “Much of what the pope said was intended to be heard in the region, including next door.”

Hrayr Jebejian, general secretary of the Bible Society in the Gulf, was more moderate.

“Bahrain is the most open and free country in the Gulf, then Kuwait, then UAE,” he said. “But it is still a Gulf country.”

In agreement with Hinder on conversion, Jebejian said he believed the pope was indirectly calling for Bahrain and surrounding nations to give Christians the same freedom Muslims experience in the West.

The Bible Society operates two bookstores in Bahrain, he said, one within the National Evangelical Church and the other in St. Christopher’s Anglican Cathedral. The nation hosted the Gulf’s first Catholic church in 1939 and last year opened the region’s largest, the 2,300-capacity Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia.

There are no restrictions on their programs, Jebejian said, but to be more “complete”—quoting the pope—the practice of faith should be welcomed also outside of the churches.

Critical analysts would add: outside the mosque.

Bahrain is home to 598 Sunni houses of worship, and 763 for Shiites. But the “elephant in the room,” said Amnesty International, is the denial of full political rights to the Shia religious majority.

Saudi Arabia helped crush Arab Spring protests in 2011, and since then Shiite activists have been arrested, deported, and stripped of citizenship. In 2016, the Bahraini government outlawed al-Wifaq, the leading Shiite opposition party.

Moore, a former USCIRF commissioner, cautioned advocates to be wary of Islamist political agendas seeking religious freedom protections. The spiritual leader of al-Wifaq, he noted, is a known admirer of Iran’s Islamic revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet he did not want anything to “distract one second” from the beautiful gathering.

But USCIRF chair Nury Turkel wanted the pope to raise concerns with the king. Even so, last year USCIRF removed Bahrain from its “special watch list” of offending nations, recognizing improvement in recent years.

Without direct criticism, and consistent with his long-term conviction, Francis spoke out publicly against the death penalty. Since 2017, Bahrain has executed six prisoners. According to Human Rights Watch, 26 are currently on death row—half for political convictions.

And when Tayyeb called for an intrafaith dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites, Francis praised his initiative as “very courageous.”

But his public ire was pointed outward.

“In the garden of humanity, instead of cultivating our surroundings,” said Francis, “we are playing instead with fire, missiles, and bombs.”

An envoy from the Russian Orthodox Church was in attendance. But lest his remark be interpreted in only one direction, Francis called on religious leaders to “not support alliances against some, but means of encounter with all.”

And remarking on the Arabic meaning of Bahrain as “two seas,” his critique was universal.

“Tragically, East and West increasingly resemble two opposing seas,” Francis said. “We, on the other hand, are here together because we all intend to set sail on the same waters.”

Also consistent with the pope’s style was an emphasis on ecumenism over evangelism. Michael Lewis, archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, praised Bahrain for its welcome of Christian communities and said these expressed “heartwarming and overwhelming” appreciation to Francis.

And as the pope addressed the Muslim Council of Elders, he returned to the image of the tree of life—this time, in Eden. “Meant to embrace all creation,” Francis said, human beings “turned their back on the Creator” and “a flood of evil and death burst forth from the human heart.”

His answer: prayer and fraternity.

“Let us be guided by the saying of Imam Ali,” Francis said, quoting from the Shiite hero, the adopted son of Muhammad: “‘People are of two types: they are either brothers and sisters in religion, or fellow men and women in humanity.’”

As he ended his apostolic mission in an address to local Gulf clergy, the Catholic pontiff invoked the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary. He also urged them to “spread Christian joy,” proclaiming the gospel in living witness.

And though he earlier urged the migrant faithful to ask for grace to be kind to those who mistreat them as they follow the Sermon on the Mount, they were also—through peace—“to shatter the chains of evil.”

His final words invoked imitation of the prophets.

“They call into question false human and religious certainties,” Francis said, “and they invite everyone to conversion.”

December
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