On his second day in the Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain, Francis concluded an East-West Dialogue conference sponsored by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. It was his second such conference in as many months, after a conference in Kazakhstan, demonstrating Francis’ core belief that moments of encounter between people of different faiths can help heal today’s conflicts and promote a more just and sustainable world.
Around him, in the grounds of the royal palace of Sakhir, were prominent Muslim imams, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and American rabbis who have long engaged in interfaith dialogue, as well as the king. Speaker after speaker called for an end to the Russian war in Ukraine and the beginning of peace negotiations. The Russian Orthodox Church, which sent an envoy to the conference, has strongly supported the Kremlin in its war, justifying it on religious grounds.
Francis told the meeting that although the world seems to be parting like two opposing seas, the mere presence of religious leaders together was evidence that they “intend to sail on the same waters, choosing the route of meeting rather than that of confrontation.”
“It is a striking paradox that, while the majority of the world’s population is united in facing the same difficulties, suffering severe food, environmental and pandemic crises, as well as an increasingly scandalous global injustice, a few potentates are entangled in a resolute fight for party interests,” he said.
“We seem to be witnessing a dramatic and childish scenario: in the garden of humanity, instead of cultivating our environment, we instead play with fire, missiles and bombs, weapons that bring sorrow and death, our common home cover with ashes and hate,” he said.
King Hamad, for his part, urged a coherent effort to end the Russian war in Ukraine and promote peace negotiations, “for the good of all humanity”.
The visit is Francis’ second visit to a Gulf Arab country, following his historic trip to Abu Dhabi in 2019, where he signed a document promoting the Catholic-Muslim brotherhood with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. Al-Tayeb is the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni teaching in Cairo, and has become Francis’ most important partner in promoting greater understanding between Christians and Muslims.
Al-Tayeb joined Francis in Bahrain and was also present in Kazakhstan last month. In his prepared remarks on Friday, he called for an end to the Russian war “to spare the lives of innocents who have no hand in this violent tragedy.”
Al-Tayeb also called on Sunni and Shia Muslims to engage in a similar process of dialogue and try to heal their centuries-long divisions, saying that Al-Azhar was willing to organize such a meeting.
“Let us together dispel all talk of hatred, provocation and excommunication and put aside ancient and modern conflict in all its forms and with all its negative offshoots,” he said. Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni monarchy that has been accused by human rights groups of systematic discrimination against the Shia majority, allegations the government rejects.
Later on Friday, al-Tayeb was to meet Francis in private and participate in a larger meeting at the mosque in the royal palace with the Muslim Council of Elders, which he leads.
Francis also delivered his message of dialogue to Bahrain’s Christian leaders by presiding over an ecumenical gathering and peace prayer at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church in the Gulf, inaugurated last year on land attached to the church was donated by Al Khalifa.
Francis opened his visit to Bahrain on Thursday by urging Bahraini authorities to renounce the death penalty and ensure basic human rights are guaranteed for all citizens — a nod to Bahraini Shia dissidents who say they are harassed and detained, subjected to torture and “mock trials,” with some sentenced to death for their political activities. The government denies discrimination against Shiites.
Francis also wanted to highlight Bahrain’s tradition of religious tolerance: unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot openly practice their faith, Bahrain is home to several Christian communities and a small Jewish community.
In his prepared remarks to the forum, American Rabbi Marc Schneier, who has long worked to promote understanding among Jewish-Muslims and as Al Khalifa’s special adviser on interfaith affairs, praised Bahrain as a “role model in the Arab world for the coexistence and tolerance of different faith communities.”
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.