Pope Furthers Catholic-Muslim Dialogue During Bahrain Visit

Tags: Currents Crux, Faith, Pope Francis

By Elise Allen, Special to The Tablet 

ROME — Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has made dialogue with Islam a cornerstone of his papacy, traveling to several majority-Muslim nations, meeting with top Islamic leaders, and drawing careful public distinctions between genuine religion and extremist fundamentalism.

Furthering this agenda was one of the primary motives of his Nov. 3-6 visit to Bahrain, which marked the second time he has traveled to a Persian Gulf nation after making a high-profile trip to Abu Dhabi in February 2019.

Since then, he has made a string of visits to other majority-Muslim countries, including a visit to Morocco in March 2019, a March 2021 trip to Iraq, and his visit to Kazakhstan in September.

In Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis signed a landmark document on human fraternity promoting Catholic-Muslim dialogue with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the former president of Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar university, widely considered the most authoritative theological institution in Sunni Islam and the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque.

During his visit to Iraq last year, Pope Francis was received by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the world’s most authoritative Shiite clerics.

Al-Tayeb, who Pope Francis has met with several times since first welcoming him to the Vatican in 2017, was also present at a high-profile interfaith summit in Astana that drew Pope Francis to Kazakhstan earlier this year.

Pope Francis traveled to Bahrain to attend the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence,” a major interfaith summit that saw the participation of top leaders of world religions, including members of Bahrain’s regional Muslim Council of Elders; Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christian community; a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church; and rabbis from the United States.

In addition to the forum, Pope Francis also met privately with al-Tayeb and held a public encounter with Bahrain’s Muslim Council of Elders, during which he stressed the importance of fraternal dialogue and getting to know one another.

“Increasingly we need to encounter one another, to get to know and to esteem one another, to put reality ahead of ideas and people ahead of opinions, openness to heaven ahead of differences on earth,” he said, telling the leaders that, “We need to put a future of fraternity ahead of a past of antagonism, overcoming historical prejudices and misunderstandings in the name of the One who is the source of peace.”

To this end, al-Tayeb also used the pope’s visit to propose a historic Shia-Sunni summit in his Nov. 4 closing speech for the Bahrain forum, calling on Muslim scholars across the world “of every doctrine, sect and school of thought to hold an Islamic dialogue, a dialogue around unity, cohesion and reproachment, a dialogue for Islamic fraternity, void of division, discord and, more especially, sectarian strife.”

Should such a meeting take place, al-Tayeb said it should focus on “commonalities and meeting points, with an understanding of differences.”

“Let us together chase away any talk of hate, provocation, and excommunication and set aside ancient and modern conflict in all its forms and with all its negative offshoots,” he said.

Senior scholars at Al-Azhar and the Muslim Council of Elders are ready to host a summit “with open hearts and extended hands, so we can sit down together on one roundtable to put aside our differences and strengthen our Islamic unity on positions which are known to be pragmatic and serve the goals of Islam and its law, which prohibits Muslims from giving in to calls for division and fragmentation,” he said.

Sunni and Shiite, which split in the 7th century and maintain different traditions in terms of religious practice, are the two major branches of Islam. In many places, there is tension between the two communities, and at times, these tensions have led to violent conflict in several countries throughout the Middle East.

Pope Francis’ own engagement with the Muslim world has largely been with Sunnis. However, his trip to Bahrain offered him the opportunity to further outreach to the Shia community.

Bahrain is 70% Muslim, with around two-thirds belonging to the Shia tradition and one-third, including the ruling Al Khalifa family, adhering to Sunni Islam.

Conflict between the two branches in Bahrain is well known and has led several human rights groups and advocates to accuse the ruling Sunni family of widespread discrimination against the Shia community, including a crackdown on dissent and arbitrary arrests, as well as the mistreatment of prisoners.

While in Bahrain, Pope Francis did not decry alleged human rights violations publicly, but he did urge authorities to strengthen their commitment to human rights by abolishing the death penalty and working to end religious discrimination.

In his opening speech, Pope Francis noted that Bahrain’s constitution bans discrimination based on “sex, origin, language, religion or creed” and insists that “freedom of conscience is absolute” and that “the state guarantees the inviolability of worship.”

These are commitments, he said, that “need constantly to be put into practice” to ensure that “religious freedom will be complete and not limited to freedom of worship” and that equal dignity and opportunities will be afforded to “each group and for every individual.”

Yet before all of these guarantees, he said, is “the right to life” and the need “to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken.”

Pope Francis made another appeal on behalf of prisoners in his final speech with bishops, clergy, and religious, saying prisoners bear the face of Jesus and that “the way in which these ‘least ones’ are treated is a measure of the dignity and the hope of a society.”

He also offered encouragement to Bahrain’s Catholic community, which numbers around 80,000 in a country of around 1.5 million, most of whom are expat workers from the Philippines and India.

Bahrain is home to the Arabian Gulf’s first Catholic church, which opened in the capital city of Manama in 1939, as well as its largest, the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, which opened last year in the town of Awali and was built on land gifted by His Majesty King Hamad.

Speaking during a Nov. 5 Mass with Catholics in Bahrain and those who traveled from neighboring countries, Pope Francis urged them to always act with love, especially amid difficult and even oppressive situations, as this is the only path to peace.

Conflict, disagreement, and oppression will always be present, he said in his homily, saying Jesus’s own response to these situations is to ask his disciples to “remain always, faithfully, in love, despite everything, even in the face of evil and our enemy.”

While a human reaction seeks revenge, Jesus shows a different and seemingly “unthinkable” way, which is to turn the other cheek.

“That is what the Lord asks of us,” he said. “Not to dream idealistically of a world of fraternity, but to choose, starting with ourselves, to practice universal fraternity, concretely and courageously, persevering in good even when evil is done to us, breaking the spiral of vengeance, disarming violence, demilitarizing the heart.”