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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 02, 2022
Pope Francis is presented with a gift from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain during a meeting at the Vatican May 19, 2014. (CNS photo/Claudio Peri, pool via Reuters)

Pope Francis will visit Bahrain from Nov. 3 to 6, becoming the first pope ever to visit the country. It will be his 39th foreign trip and the 58th country he has visited as pope. While there, the pope will meet with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. The two religious leaders were both invited by the king of Bahrain to participate in the interreligious meeting, “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence,” according to Judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Elders and a close advisor to the grand imam.

In this exclusive interview in Rome, conducted by Gerard O’Connell, the Vatican correspondent for America, the judge recalled that when King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain visited Pope Francis on May 19, 2014, he told the pope, “I hope one day you can come to Bahrain.”

The king then promised “to build a big church in Bahrain for the Catholic community and gave the pope a model of the church. He subsequently sent the pope regular updates on the progress of the church’s construction, and when it was built, the pope sent Cardinal [Luis Antonio] Tagle on Dec. 10, 2021, to bless the church,” the judge said.

The church, Our Lady of Arabia, is only the second Catholic church in the kingdom. It is in Awali, a municipality in the center of Bahrain, where Francis will stay during the visit. The great, great grandfather of the present king built the first church on the Arabian peninsula, the Church of the Sacred Heart, in 1939, in Manama, the capital city. Pope Francis will visit both churches.

A forum for dialogue between East and West


In the interview, the judge recalled that “before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, the organizers of the Muslim Council of Elders decided to hold a forum for East-West dialogue in Bahrain, and the king offered to host it.”

The Muslim Council of Elders was established in 2014 at a meeting of 400 leading scholars from the Muslim world. The judge described it as “an international, wholly independent organization, chaired by the Grand Imam of Al Azhar. It includes top scholars and wise intellectuals from 16 different Islamic countries. Most of its members are Sunni, but two are Shia and come from Lebanon and Azerbaijan.” He described the mission of the council as twofold: first “to promote and advance peace and stability within Muslim communities, both Sunni and Shia,” and second, “to promote and advance peace and stability between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, through promoting and advancing dialogue, inter-faith dialogue, and disseminating the values of human fraternity and peaceful coexistence.”

"The Holy Father and the Grand Imam have a joint project that is ongoing on and is not restricted by time, namely, the promotion and advancement of the human fraternity values worldwide."

Judge Abdel Salam said one of the “important initiatives” of the Muslim Council of Elders is the East-West dialogue that it started in 2015. He explained, “by ‘East’ we mean the countries of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and by ‘West’ we mean America and European countries.” He said the initiative was sparked by the “growing gap and isolation between these areas of the world. So many young people were getting a wrong impression and misunderstanding of others, so the aim of the initiative was to advance mutual understanding and knowledge of the cultures and values of each other.” This meeting in Bahrain will be the sixth round of the East-West dialogue.

Pope Francis will participate in its final event together with the grand Imam on Nov. 4, and that same day the two leaders will participate in an open discussion with the Muslim Council of Elders, as they did in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Afterwards they will meet in private together.

“I believe the Holy Father and the Grand Imam have a joint project that is ongoing on and is not restricted by time, namely, the promotion and advancement of the human fraternity values worldwide,” the judge said. “Each meeting between the two leaders is a further step and a further milestone on their joint journey to realizing human fraternity.”

Pope Francis and the grand imam co-wrote the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together that they signed in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4, 2019. In response, the U.N. General Assembly established the International Day of Human Fraternity to be celebrated by all member states. The initiative has been supported from the beginning by the United Arab Emirates, and the document has been endorsed at a national level by several countries, including Egypt and Timor Leste.

Why meet in Bahrain?


Referring to the Bahrain meeting, the judge said two factors underline its significance: “time and place.” It is taking place at a time of “serious disturbance in the world” marked by “many conflicts and global concern for the future of the planet,” and “people need to see religious figures meet together to discuss the issues that are of concern to all and, especially, to emphasize the need to maintain and build peace.” He said the place is significant because “the kingdom of Bahrain has a historic legacy of embracing dialogue and advancing human peaceful co-existence. It’s a country that has always been a meeting point for people of different cultures and civilizations.”

The kingdom of Bahrain is an island archipelago in the two seas between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It has a population of 1.5 million people, half of them Bahrain nationals. The majority (70 percent) are Muslim: 24 percent are Sunni, including the monarchy and ruling class; 46 percent are Shiite.

Roughly half of the population are migrants from other Arab countries and Asia. Non-Catholic Christians account for 15 percent of the population; Catholics, 11 percent (mostly from the Philippines and India); Hindus, 10 percent. There is freedom of worship for all, although some N.G.O.s have accused Bahrain of repression of human rights and charge that there is no freedom of opinion in the country. Judge Abdel Salam pushed back on this criticism, saying that he had looked into specific cases of people who were detained and learned that they were “arrested at riots and demonstrations” and sentenced in accordance with the laws of the country for “trying to destabilize the country.” He said he believes they would have also been sentenced for such actions in the United States or other countries.

The Kingdom of Bahrain "tries to adopt dialogue as a reliable means to achieve unity between its people," the judge said.

Judge Abdel Salem said “the kingdom tries to adopt dialogue as a reliable means to achieve unity between its people, and to promote these values of human coexistence and tolerance in the Gulf region and the Middle East region. It uses dialogue to counter both the internal problems that might arise from time to time, and the external attempts to promote sectarian strife and disunity among its people.”

He said the Bahrain dialogue forum with the encounter between Pope Francis and the grand imam sends “a great and strong message that these two leaders are true believers in the importance of the culture of encounter between people of different faiths.” Pope Francis frequently presents “the culture of encounter as something that humanity most needs,” he said; “the Quran also calls for this, which it describes as getting to know each other between tribes and nations.” And this call is “repeatedly emphasized by the Grand Imam.”

Judge Abdel Salam sees the Bahrain meeting with the two religious leaders as “a call for unity, for national unity among the Bahrain people, and the different categories of its population” and “a message to the external forces who are trying to cause sectarian strife and disunity.”

A road map for humanity


The judge described the pope and grand imam’s participation in the forum together with high-ranking Catholic church officials and top scholars from the Al-Azhar al Sharif Islamic scientific research community and the Muslim Council of Elders as “a unique opportunity to tackle a number of the challenges facing our world,” including “the institution of family, the climate change threat from rising temperatures, the food crisis and the water shortage in different places, the increasing poverty and rise of diseases and pandemics worldwide.” He hopes the meetings can “offer a road map to humanity.”

He does not exclude that the Pope and the grand imam could discuss conflicts near and far, including Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Ukraine, and the need to work for peace in these situations.

He recalled that since their first encounter in 2016, Pope Francis and the grand imam have met face-to-face nine times over five years and have communicated with each other many times in between these meetings. The judge wrote a book about their relationship last year.

Their frequency of communication “is very telling,” Judge Abdel Salam said, “and shows that the relationship between them is not a diplomatic, formal relationship, nor is it a meeting just for a photo or a hug in front of the camera; it is something much deeper. They have gone beyond the mere dialogue between leaders of different faiths and have developed a genuine partnership and a real, sincere relationship to deliver something for the betterment of humanity. In each meeting we can see that there are tangible outcomes and new projects established and announced. They are presenting a unique example for all faith leaders to come together and guide humanity to global peace and human fraternity.”

On the first day of his visit, Pope Francis will have a meeting with the king of Bahrain and address 1,000 members of the country’s civic and religious authorities and the diplomatic corps in Awali, in the country’s center. On Nov. 4, he will participate in the East-West forum dialogue and in a discussion with the Muslim Council of Elders, at which the grand imam will preside, followed by a private meeting with the grand imam. That evening the pope will participate in an ecumenical service and prayer for peace in the new Catholic church in Awali. On Nov. 5 he will celebrate Mass for some 20,000 Catholics in the stadium in Awali, and on Nov. 6 he will visit the country’s oldest Catholic church in Manama, where he will pray with and address members of the Catholic clergy and pastoral workers. Later he will visit a Catholic school. The pope returns to Rome later that day.

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