Pope Francis' visit to Bahrain was his seventh meeting with the Grand Imam of al Azhar, Ahmed al Tayyeb; a relaunching of the document on Human Fraternity, which the Pope himself described as "current" in the press conference on the plane on the return flight; and the confirmation that Francis maintains a "multilateral" dialogue with Islam, based more on encounters than on strategies.
The Pope had been invited to Bahrain since 2014, and the 2019 trip to the UAE had clamorously shifted the balance of the dialogue towards Sunni Islam: after all, Pope Francis had been in Cairo in 2017 at an Al Azhar conference.
The trip to Iraq in 2021, where the meeting with Ayatollah Al Sistani took place, was intended to redirect the dialogue with Islam to a more marked balance, also looking towards Shiite Islam. The trip to Bahrain, in a way, closes the circle, since the Pope has gone to a country with a Shiite majority, but governed by Sunnis.
Sunnis and Shiites
To understand this, one must define the differences between Shiite and Sunni Islam. When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., the succession was disputed between Abu Bakr, friend and father of Muhammad's wife Aisha, and Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. The former took their name from the "Sunna", the code of conduct of the communities loyal to Islam, while the latter called themselves "Shiaat Ali", supporters of Ali.
The Sunnis prevailed, but for a short time Ali was the fourth caliph. In 680, the Sunnis killed Imam Hussein, son of Ali, in Kerbala, in what is remembered in the Shiite world as the "Ashura". The division thus became irremediable.
Sunnis and Shiites pray differently and make different professions of faith. Sunnis do not have an organized clergy, in the proper sense: it is the imams who lead the prayer. The Shiites, on the other hand, prepare their clergy in Islamic universities for this purpose. For the Shiites, the ayatollahs, their religious leaders, are representatives of the divinity on earth and await the revelation of the twelfth and last imam, who will one day reveal himself to fulfill Allah's will on earth.
Towards Sunni Islam
But why was there an imbalance towards Sunni Islam? Because Sunni Islam has done very important work on the issue of citizenship. Sunni Islam has done very important work on citizenship, with the goal of no longer considering non-Muslims as "second-class citizens."
This effort led to the Marrakech Declaration of 2016, the Beirut meeting, the Cairo Peace Conference in 2017, attended by the Pope, the pronouncement of 500 imams in Pakistan in January 2019 (which also defended Asia Bibi, the Christian sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, who was later acquitted and had to leave the country) and, finally, the Conference on Fraternity in Abu Dhabi in February 2019.
The relationship with Al Azhar
Al Azhar University, one of the highest Sunni authorities, had broken off dialogue with the Vatican in 2011, when Al Azhar accused the Holy See of "interference in Egypt's internal affairs" after Benedict XVI raised his voice to condemn the attack on Coptic Christians killed in a church in Alexandria.
It was a formal closure, because several gestures of rapprochement followed. Although an official dialogue was lacking, Mahmoud Azab represented the Grand Imam of Al Azhar in March 2014 at a conference at the Vatican, at the end of which an interfaith declaration against human trafficking was signed. And he had drawn attention, in February 2015, to Al Azhar's harsh condemnation of the self-styled Islamic State, which had burned at the stake a Jordanian pilot.
In February 2016, a delegation from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue went to al Azhar, reopening relations with the Holy See and opening what would be the first meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al Azhar, Ahmed bin Tayyeb.
The meeting added an ulterior motive for Pope Francis to visit Egypt. The trip took place in 2017, on the occasion of a Peace Conference organized precisely by Al Azhar.
That the meeting took place in Egypt was an important fact. In 2014, Egyptian President Al Sisi had said at Al Azhar itself that a revolution within Islam was needed. The applause was formidable. That same year, the Muslim Council of Elders was created, with the aim of "promoting peace among Muslim communities".
In 2015, the same university launched an online observatory to counter accusations of terrorism and renew the religious discourse in Islam. This movement towards a moderate interpretation of Islam had a visible sign in the international conference held again at Al Azhar, between February 28 and March 1, 2017. The conference was entitled "Freedom and Citizenship. Diversity and Integration," and produced a document, the "Al Azhar Declaration on Coexistence between Catholics and Muslims."
The declaration condemned all forms of violence committed in the name of religion, and declared firm opposition to all forms of political power based on discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims.
The reform movement in Islam
The Al Azhar statement added to the various declarations that have followed one after another in the Islamic world condemning violence in the name of God. Another such statement is that of the Kingdom of Bahrain, cited by Pope Francis in his speech at the "Bahrain Forum for Dialogue" conference, which he closed in 2014.
If Sunni Islam had somehow become the spokesman for a new way of seeing Islam, Pope Francis has also tried to establish a bridge with Shiite Islam. And he did so by going to Najaf, during his trip to Iraq in March 2021, to meet with Ayatollah Muhammad al Sistani, who over the years has become not only a religious authority, but also an authority of reference to whom everything can be asked.
It was a meeting much desired by Cardinal Raffael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, who hoped that the Pope would sign a declaration of Human Fraternity also with the highest Shiite authority, as he had done with the Grand Imam of al Azhar in Abu Dhabi.
The idea was to somehow calm the divided tempers of Islam, because the Islamic State (Daesh), which put Iraq for years to fire and sword, was in reality, as Jesuit Father Khalil Samir Khalil has explained on several occasions, the product of an entirely internal war of Islam.
With Sunni Islam, Pope Francis has supported a new vision of the concept of citizenship within the Islamic world. In visiting Al Sistani, Pope Francis showed his support for the "quietist" interpretation of Islam promoted by the Grand Ayatollah, in which religion and politics are not united, but separated, with the idea that "only good citizens can create a good society."
Finally, the Forum of Bahrain, passing through Kazakhstan
After visiting another Islamic majority country, Kazakhstan, to close the Congress of Leaders of the World's Religions and Traditions, the Pope went on to Bahrain, where he participated in the "Global Interfaith Forum" organized by the "King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence".
Leaving aside the human rights issues raised by various organizations, Pope Francis symbolically wanted to participate in a conference whose theme was "East and West for human coexistence". At the heart of it all was another declaration, that of Bahrain, which reiterated that there can be no violence in the name of religion.
It is part of an ongoing effort of dialogue with Islam. In Iran, the University of Qom has helped publish the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the Farsi language. While the Secretary of the Muslim World League, Muhammad al Issa, considered the new face of Saudi Islam, visited Pope Francis in 2017, and has long called in his speeches for the development of interreligious dialogue.
The trip to Bahrain was, in the end, only one of the various bridges of dialogue established by Pope Francis with the Islamic world. The effort consists in going where there seems to be an intention of peace. To, in the style of Pope Francis, open processes, rather than outlining paths.