AWALI, Bahrain (AP) — Pope Francis urged Bahrain authorities on Thursday to renounce the death penalty and ensure basic human rights are guaranteed for all citizens as he arrived in the Sunni-led kingdom that has been accused by rights groups of systematic discrimination against its Shiite majority.
With King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa by his side, Francis also urged the Arab Gulf nation to ensure “safe and dignified” working conditions for its immigrant laborers, who have long faced abuse and exploitation in the island’s construction, oil extraction and domestic service industries.
While diplomatic, Francis didn’t shy from some of the contentious social issues in Bahrain at the start of his four-day visit to participate in a government-sponsored interfaith conference on East-West dialogue and minister to the country’s small Catholic community.
The 85-year-old Francis, who has been using a wheelchair for several months because of strained knee ligaments, said he was “in a lot of pain” as he flew to the Gulf. For the first time, he greeted journalists traveling with him seated rather than walking through the plane’s aisle.
Human rights groups and relatives of Shiite activists on death row had urged Francis to use his Bahrain visit to call for an end to capital punishment and to advocate for political dissidents, hundreds of whom have been detained since Bahrain violently crushed the 2011 Arab Spring protests with the help of neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the years since, Bahrain has imprisoned Shiite activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship, banned the largest Shiite opposition group and closed down its leading independent newspaper.
Bahrain’s government maintains it respects human rights and freedom of speech. Ahead of the trip, the government told The Associated Press that it has a “zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith.”
Francis referred indirectly to the sectarian strife as he arrived in the desert town of Awali and met with Al Khalifa at the Sakhir royal palace in the first-ever papal visit to Bahrain. Speaking to government authorities and diplomats from the palace’s glistening courtyard, Francis praised Bahrain’s tradition of tolerance and cited Bahrain’s constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, as a stated commitment that needs to be put into practice.
Doing so, he said, would guarantee “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.”
Referring to the death penalty, Francis said the government must guarantee first and foremost the right to life, and “the need to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken.”
According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, Bahrain ended a de-facto moratorium on the death penalty in 2017 and has executed six prisoners since. The group and Human Rights Watch have documented a “dramatic increase” in the number of death sentences being handed down since 2011, with 26 people currently on death row, half for political activities. The groups have said some were convicted after “manifestly unfair trials based solely or primarily on confession allegedly coerced through torture and ill-treatment.”
In the run-up to the visit, the Bahrain rights group released a letter from relatives of some of those death row inmates, begging Francis to raise the issue and to visit the Jau prison where many political detainees are held.
“Our family members remain behind bars and at risk of execution despite the clear injustice of their convictions,” read the letter.
Francis has changed Catholic Church teaching to declare the death penalty inadmissible in all cases. He has regularly visited inmates during his foreign trips, but no such prison visit is planned in Bahrain. Francis has also repeatedly called for dignified wages and working conditions for laborers worldwide, and he repeated that call upon arrival in Bahrain.
Francis recalled that Bahrain had one of the highest levels of immigration in the world, with around half of the population foreign workers, but that much labor was “dehumanizing.”
“Let’s guarantee that working conditions everywhere are safe and dignified,” Francis said. He urged Bahrain to be a “beacon through the region for the promotion of equal rights and improved conditions for workers, women and young people, while at the same time ensuring respect and concern for all those who feel most at the margins of society, such as immigrants and prisoners.”
Bahrain, like other Gulf Arab states, relies on laborers from Asian nations like India and Pakistan who can face dire conditions for little pay. While Bahrain and others have made labor reforms after facing international pressure, some workers still find themselves mistreated by their employers or denied salaries due to them.
Al Khalifa, for his part, praised Francis’ efforts to promote interfaith fraternity and said Bahrain was committed to a similar goal of a world “where tolerance prevails while striving for peace and rejects whatever divides its unity.”
Francis is expected to address migrant workers directly when he meets with the country’s Catholic community, which numbers around 80,000 in a country of around 1.5 million. Most are workers hailing from the Philippines and India, though trip organizers expect pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries will attend Francis’ big Mass at the national stadium on Saturday.
Bahrain is home to the Gulf’s oldest Catholic Church, the Sacred Heart parish, which opened in 1939, as well as its biggest one, Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral. With a capacity of 2,300, the cathedral opened last year in Awali on land gifted to the church by the king.
Francis will visit both churches during his visit and is likely to thank the king for the tolerance the government has long shown Christians, particularly when compared to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot openly practice their faith.
“Religious liberty inside Bahrain is perhaps the best in the Arab world,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, the apostolic administrator for Bahrain and other Gulf countries. “Even if everything isn’t ideal, there can be conversions [to Christianity], which aren’t at least officially punished like in other countries.”