Pope Francis will become the first pontiff in history to visit Bahrain this week, in a trip aimed at strengthening ties with Islam but marred by allegations of human rights violations in the Gulf state.
The visit, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, is Francis’ 39th international trip as Pope. It comes three years after his historic trip to the United Arab Emirates in 2019, where he signed a Muslim-Christian manifesto for peace.
However, some human rights groups are hoping that Francis will press Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, to end repression of Muslims in the country, even as neighbour Qatar’s human rights record has come under scrutiny in recent months ahead of the World Cup.
During his papacy, the 85-year-old Argentine pontiff has made outreach to Muslim communities a priority, visiting Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt in 2017 and Iraq last year while promising interfaith dialogue with leading Muslim clerics.
Francis will meet with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and centre of Islamic learning, at Sakhir Palace in the country’s centre on Friday.
In February 2019, the two religious leaders signed a joint document in Abu Dhabi pledging interfaith coexistence between Christians and Muslims. That was the first papal visit to the Gulf region, where Islam was born.
Francis will also meet with the Muslim Council of Elders in Abu Dhabi for a “East and West” forum, where he will discuss Muslim communities in the West, humanitarian crises, climate issues, and Muslim-Christian relations.