SAKHIR, Bahrain— Pope Francis spoke against the death penalty on Thursday at the start of a trip to Bahrain where the Shi’ite Muslim opposition accuse the Sunni monarchy of overseeing human rights abuses and families of death row inmates had sought help from the pontiff.
The visit, only the second by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, is aimed at improving ties with the Islamic world but has thrust him into the Sunni-Shi’ite rights divide in Bahrain, which crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 2011.
Referring to Bahrain’s constitution, the pope said commitments should constantly be put into practice so that “religious freedom will be complete”, equal dignity and equal opportunities “concretely recognized for each group”, and that no forms of discrimination exist nor human rights “violated”.
“I think in the first place of the right to life, of the need to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken,” he added.
Pope Francis was speaking at Sakhir Palace alongside King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. From the stage, the 85-year-old pope, suffering from knee pain, was led in a wheelchair to the entrance of the courtyard with the king walking alongside. The pope rose and the two embraced before the pontiff got into a white Fiat 500 with Vatican plates.
King Hamad, in his speech, said his country protected the freedom of all faiths to “perform their rituals and establish their places of worship”. Bahrain, he said, rejected religious discrimination and condemned “violence and incitement” under a declaration issued by the state several years ago.
Bahrain seeks to strengthen “our common purpose towards a world in which tolerance prevails while striving for peace,” he added.
The pope’s visit has drawn attention to tensions between the Sunni-led government and the Shi’ite community that led sizeable pro-democracy protests in the 2011 “Arab Spring”, which Bahrain quashed with Saudi and UAE help.
Bahrain has imprisoned thousands of protesters, journalists and activists – some in mass trials – since the uprising and cracked down on later dissent and sporadic unrest, in which security forces were targeted by bomb attacks.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a Bahraini activist in exile who heads the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, in a statement praised the pope’s speech as a “historic moment” and urged King Hamad to release those “wrongly imprisoned so the country can finally begin to heal after years of violence and oppression”.
Families of death row inmates in Bahrain had appealed to the Argentine-born pope to speak out against capital punishment and defend political prisoners during his trip.
Bahrain rejects criticism from the United Nations and others over its conduct of trials and detention conditions. It says it prosecutes in accordance with international law and that its legal and judicial system continues to be reformed.
Francis’ schedule during his Nov. 3-6 trip includes an address to the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence”, talks with King Hamad, and a meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders.
Bahrain is about 70% Muslim and, unlike Saudi Arabia, allows its community of about 160,000 Catholics – mostly foreign workers – to practice their faith publicly in two churches.
It is home to the first Catholic church built in the Gulf area in modern times, which opened in 1939, and the cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church on the Arabian Peninsula.
—Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Alexandra Hudson and Alison Williams