Bahrain's Shiites Hope Pope Raises Human Rights Concerns During His Visit
2022-11-02 - 1:52 p
Bahrain Mirror: The country's majority Shiite opposition and human rights activists in Bahrain called on Pope Francis to raise human rights concerns in his first-ever papal trip to Bahrain this week.
"There's a huge elephant in the room in this situation," said Devin Kenney, Amnesty International's Bahrain researcher. "The watchwords of this visit are coexistence and dialogue and the Bahraini government suppresses civil and political freedoms, without which coexistence and dialogue cannot be sustained."
While some Shiite opposition leaders welcome the visit, they hope Francis won't sidestep the issue of decades of sectarian strife.
"The people of Bahrain live under the influence of sectarian persecution, discrimination, intolerance and systematic governmental repression," said Al-Wefaq, an opposition Shiite party outlawed and dismantled by court order in 2016.
Asked if he will raise human rights concerns during the visit, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni cited Francis' frequent calls for religious liberty and interfaith dialogue.
"The position of the Holy See and the pope concerning religious freedom and liberty is clear and is known," Bruni told reporters at the Vatican. He declined to say whether Francis would address the Bahraini government's treatment of its Shiite community in any way.
Bishop Paul Hinder, the Catholic apostolic administrator of Bahrain and neighboring countries, said competition with other Gulf Arab nations likely drove the Al Khalifa royal family, which has ruled Bahrain since the late 1700s, to invite Francis to the country. Hinder said he expected any "problematic" issues about Bahrain's Shiites would be raised by the pope, but "behind the curtains" and not necessarily in public remarks. "I know the style of this part of the world a bit," Hinder said. "They don't like open criticism."
The Bahraini government practices "tangible religious persecution" and discrimination among Bahrainis, said Jawad Fairooz, chairman of Bahrain's Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. The former legislator who lives in exile in Europe pointed to the arrest and exile of senior religious figures - as well as hundreds of others detained.
"We see that the atmosphere in Bahrain is not suitable to host an interfaith gathering," Fairooz said, adding that the state follows a "systemic campaign that contradicts these principles."
While overt police crackdowns have faded in recent years, government policies still disproportionally push Bahrain's Shiites into satellite villages and downplay their history, said Simon Mabon, a professor who studies the Middle East at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. The country's media also remains tightly muzzled while critical journalists have had their government-issued press cards revoked.
"It's done so subtly and granularly," Mabon said. "It's insidious."
Nury Turkel, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he would like to see Francis raise with the Bahraini government some of the issues that may make it "uncomfortable," such as concerns over the treatment of the Shiite majority.
"The country, generally, is quite tolerant of its Christian population and the pope's visit should not overshadow this systematic discrimination against the Shiite Muslims," Turkel said.
Bahraini human rights groups, nearly all in exile amid a yearslong crackdown on dissent, openly criticize the monarchy.