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AWALI, Nov 3, (AP): Pope Francis on Thursday brought his message of dialogue with the Muslim world to the kingdom of Bahrain, where the Sunni-led government is hosting an interfaith conference on East-West coexistence even as it stands accused of discriminating against the country’s Shiite majority. Human rights groups and relatives of Shiite activists on death row have urged Francis to use his visit to call for an end to the death penalty and political repression in Bahrain.
But it wasn’t clear if Francis will publicly and explictly embarrass his hosts during his four-day visit, the first of any pontiff to the island nation in the Arabian Gulf. He arrived at the desert Awali air base to little fanfare and went immediately into a private meeting with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at the airport before the official welcome ceremony. Francis has long touted dialogue as an instrument of peace and believes a show of interfaith harmony is needed, especially now given Russia’s war in Ukraine and regional conflicts, such as in Yemen. On the eve of the trip, Francis asked for prayers so that the trip will promote “the cause of brotherhood and of peace, of which our times are in extreme and urgent need.” The visit is Francis’ second to a Gulf Arab country, following his 2019 landmark trip to Abu Dhabi, where he signed a document promoting Catholic- Muslim fraternity with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. Al-Tayeb is the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo.
Francis followed that with a 2021 visit to Iraq, where he was received by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the world’s pre-eminent Shiite clerics. Pope Francis urged Bahrain authorities on Thursday to renounce the death penalty and ensure basic human rights are guaranteed for all citizens as he arrived in the Sunni-led kingdom that has been accused by rights groups of systematic discrimination against its Shiite majority. With King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa by his side, Francis also urged the Arab Gulf nation to ensure “safe and dignified” working conditions for its immigrant laborers, who have long faced abuse and exploitation in the island’s construction, oil extraction and domestic service industries.