An itinerary under the banner of interreligious dialogue, peace and the encounter between people of different beliefs. This is the background and the horizon of the Pope Francis' Apostolic Journey to the Kingdom of Bahrainon his trip from 3 to 6 November. It is the 39th of the pontificate, the ninth in Muslim-majority countries: a corollary of the encyclical "Fratelli tutti", in the wake of the 2019 visit to Abu Dhabi for the signing with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb (with whom the Pope will also meet privately in the coming days) of the "Document on Human Fraternity", a milestone for the new relations between Islam and the Catholic Church.
On the spirit of the trip Francis himself focused last Sunday at the Angelus. "I will take part in a Forum that will focus on the indispensable need for East and West to become more united for the sake of human coexistence; I will have the opportunity to meet with religious representatives, in particular Islamic representatives." An opportunity for fraternity and peace, of which the world has "extreme and urgent need".
The same key to interpretation is found in the words of the last few days with which Cardinal Pietro Parolin confirmed the primarily interreligious character of the visit, the Pontiff's second to the Arabian Peninsula (of which Bahrain is an insular appendage).
Temples in Bahrain
Bahrain, the cradle of Shiite Islam, despite some tensions with the minority Sunni part of the population, is a state that is also tolerant of the small Catholic community (about 80,000 people, mostly immigrants for work reasons out of a total population of 1.4 million). King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who received the Pope before the meeting with the authorities and the diplomatic corps, donated a few years ago the land on which today stands the second church of the country, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia in Awali, which the Pope will visit. The first dates back to 1939 and is located in the capital, Manama.
Among the highlights of the visit, which will last until Sunday, are a meeting with the Council of Muslim Elders at the Royal Palace Mosque in Sakhir this afternoon, and an embrace with the Catholic community at the Mass that the Pope himself will preside over on Saturday at the national stadium of Bahrain (more than 20,000 people are expected to attend), followed by a meeting with young people at Sacred Heart School. Finally, on Sunday morning, at the Sacred Heart Church in Manama, Francis will conclude his visit with the bishops, local clergy, consecrated men and women, seminarians and pastoral workers.
Condemnation of the war
At the Royal Palace of Sakhir, in Awali, Francis concluded today the Forum of Dialogue with the leaders of the different confessions. With an invitation to joint action to repair the divisions: "May the path of the great religions be a conscience of peace for the world. Oppose the "market of death", isolate the violent who abuse the name of God and stop supporting terrorist movements". Again an appeal "for an end to the war in Ukraine and for serious peace negotiations". It is not enough to say that a religion is peaceful: one must act accordingly. It is not enough to affirm religious freedom: it is necessary to really overcome all limitations in matters of faith and work so that even education does not become a self-referential indoctrination, but a way to really open the space to others.
It is a message on the concrete consequences of fraternity that Pope Francis pronounced this morning in Bahrain when he addressed the other religious leaders and personalities present at the "Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence", the event on dialogue that is the occasion of the current apostolic journey. In the Al-Fida' square of the royal palace of Awali, together with the sovereign Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, were present exponents of different religious confessions summoned to the Gulf country for this occasion: among them the Imam of al Azhar, Ahmed al Tayyeb, and the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, whom Francis greeted with affection. "East and West increasingly resemble two opposing seas," said the Pontiff, commenting on the theme of the meeting, "we, instead, are here together because we intend to sail on the same sea, choosing the path of encounter and not that of confrontation."
This task is more urgent than ever in today's troubled world: even from Awali, Francis did not fail to raise his voice to call for an end to the war in Ukraine. "While the majority of the world's population is united by the same difficulties, afflicted by serious food, ecological and pandemic crises, as well as by an increasingly scandalous planetary injustice," he said, "a few powerful people are concentrating on a determined struggle for partisan interests, exhuming an obsolete language, redrawing zones of influence and opposing blocs." He described it as "a dramatically childish scenario: in the garden of humanity, instead of caring for the whole, they play with fire, with missiles and bombs, with weapons that cause tears and death, covering the common home with ashes and hatred".
It is therefore necessary that believers of all religions respond by following the path of fraternity, already indicated in 2019 in the Declaration signed in Abu Dhabi with al Tayyeb and recalled by the same Declaration of the Kingdom of Bahrain discussed during the meeting of these days. But so that they do not remain mere words, Francis today indicated three concrete challenges: prayer, education and action. First of all, the dimension of prayer: "the opening of the heart to the Most High - he explained - is fundamental to purify ourselves from selfishness, closed-mindedness, self-referentiality, falsehood and injustice".
Whoever prays "receives peace in his heart and cannot but become its witness and messenger". But this requires an indispensable premise: religious freedom. "It is not enough," the Pope stresses, "to grant permission and recognize freedom of worship, but true religious freedom must be achieved. And not only every society, but every creed is called to verify this. It is called to ask itself whether it constrains from the outside or liberates God's creatures from within; whether it helps man to reject rigidity, closed-mindedness and violence; whether it increases in believers true freedom, which is not doing what one pleases, but disposing oneself to the purpose of good for which we have been created".
A second challenge indicated by the Pontiff is education, an alternative to the ignorance that is the enemy of peace. But it must be an education truly "worthy of man, to be dynamic and relational: therefore, not rigid and monolithic, but open to challenges and sensitive to cultural changes; not self-referential and isolating, but attentive to the history and culture of others; not static, but inquiring, to embrace different and essential aspects of the one humanity to which we belong." It must teach to "enter into the heart of problems without presuming to have the solution and to solve complex problems in a simple way, but with the disposition to inhabit the crisis without yielding to the logic of conflict".
An education that will increase the capacity "to question oneself, to enter into crisis and to know how to dialogue with patience, respect and a spirit of listening; to learn the history and culture of others. Because it is not enough to say that we are tolerant, but we must make room for others, give them rights and opportunities".
Women and rights
For Francis, education also involves three urgent matters: first, "the recognition of women in the public sphere. Secondly, the protection of the fundamental rights of children: "Let us educate ourselves," the Pope urged, "to look at crises, problems and wars with the eyes of children: it is not a matter of naive kindness, but of far-sighted wisdom, because only by thinking of them will progress be reflected in innocence and not in profit, and will contribute to building a future on a human scale. And then education for citizenship, renouncing "the discriminatory use of the term minority, which carries with it the germ of a feeling of isolation and inferiority".
Finally, the fraternity calls for action, to translate into coherent gestures the "no to the blasphemy of war and the use of violence". "It is not enough to say that a religion is peaceful," Francis specified, "it is necessary to condemn and isolate the violent who abuse its name." The religious man, the man of peace, also opposes the arms race, the business of war, the market of death. He does not favor alliances against anyone, but paths of encounter with all: without yielding to relativism or syncretism of any kind, he pursues a single path, that of fraternity, of dialogue, of peace".
"The Creator," Francis concluded, "invites us to act, especially in favor of too many of his creatures who still do not find enough space on the agendas of the powerful: the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the migrants... If we, who believe in the God of mercy, do not listen to the miserable and give voice to the voiceless, who will? Let us be on his side, let us work to help the wounded and the tried. In so doing, we will draw down upon the world the blessing of the Most High."