(Photo Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/ AP)
Bahraini rights activists and relatives of the country’s political prisoners have been mounting pressure on Pope Francis, who is currently visiting the Gulf nation, to pressure the Al-Khalifa monarchy into ending its human rights abuses and sectarian persecution.
On 4 November, they welcomed the pope’s call to end the death penalty in the country and expressed hope that the Pope would meet with death row inmates and their families throughout the remainder of his stay in Bahrain.
“There is an urgent need for the Pope to continue pressuring towards ending human rights violations… I previously requested the Pope meet with my father in prison and demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and I hope that this will happen during the upcoming days,” Ali Mushaima, activist and son of Hasan Mushaima, the imprisoned opposition leader of the Haq party, said.
On 5 November, the Pope held a mass at the Bahrain National Stadium, which was attended by around 30,000 people, mostly migrants from Asian countries, as Bahrain’s Christian population is significantly small in number. The ceremony was held in the name of “justice and peace.”
Two days earlier, King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa received Pope Francis in an official ceremony at Bahrain’s Sakhir Palace. During the ceremony, Francis made a speech publicly calling for the proper implementation of the country’s constitution, which is supposed to forbid religious discrimination and persecution.
This would assure that “equal dignity and equal opportunities will be concretely recognized for each group and for every individual; that no forms of discrimination exist and that fundamental human rights are not violated but promoted,” he said.
Many have expressed concern that the monarchy will use Francis’ trip to attempt to present an image of acceptance, coexistence, and religious tolerance. The Al-Khalifa monarchy is a Sunni ruling minority, which governs the country’s Shia majority with an iron fist. It is also known to crack down strongly on dissidents and imprison them without evidence.
The Bahraini kingdom regularly strips dissidents and Shias of their citizenships, as they did with the leading cleric and exiled spiritual leader of the al-Wefaq opposition party, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassem.
Despite the concern that the Pope’s visit will not amount to much, Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist, said that people were “very happy to see that he took this as an opportunity to raise human rights concerns, including the death penalty and the sectarian discrimination against the Shia population in Bahrain.” This was the first papal visit to Bahrain ever carried out.