A poster bearing the images of Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (left) and Pope Francis is displayed at the Sacred Heart Church in the capital Manama, on Oct. 7. (Photo: AFP)
Pope Francis will become the first pontiff in history to visit Bahrain, in a trip this week that is hoped to cement ties with Islam, but is also marked by accusations of human rights abuses in the Gulf state.
The Thursday-to-Sunday visit -- the 39th international trip of Francis' papacy -- comes three years after his historic trip to the United Arab Emirates in 2019, where he signed a Muslim-Christian manifesto for peace.
But some human rights groups now hope Francis will press Bahrain's Sunni leader, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, to halt repression against Shiite Muslims in the country, even as the rights record of neighbour Qatar has drawn more attention in recent months ahead of the World Cup.
The Argentine pontiff, 85, has made outreach to Muslim communities a priority during his papacy, visiting Middle Eastern countries including Egypt in 2017 and Iraq last year while pledging interfaith dialogue with leading Muslim clerics.
On Friday, Francis plans to meet with Sunni Islam's highest authority, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and centre of Islamic learning, at Sakhir Palace in the centre of the country.
The two religious leaders signed a joint document in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 pledging interfaith co-existence between Christians and Muslims. That visit marked the first ever by a pope to the Gulf region, where Islam was born.
Francis will also meet with the Abu Dhabi-based Muslim Council of Elders for an "East and West" forum, with Muslim communities in the West, humanitarian crises, climate issues and Muslim-Christian relations on the agenda.
Also on Friday, the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics -- expected to be confined to a wheelchair during his trip due to persistent knee pain -- will lead an ecumenical prayer in Awali's cavernous Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, which opened its doors December.
The cathedral that seats over 2,000 people was built to serve Bahrain's approximately 80,000 Catholics, mainly workers from southern Asia, including India and the Philippines.
Bahrain, like the United Arab Emirates, is considered a relatively more tolerant Arab nation, in comparison with ultra-conservative Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia -- repeatedly cited by human rights groups for abuses -- whose absolute monarchy does not recognise freedom of religion and which bans all non-Muslim places of worship.
Still, NGOs continue to cite discrimination, repression and harassment in Bahrain by the Sunni elite against Shiites, crackdowns on opposition figures and activists, and other abuses.
The non-profit Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain wrote this month that the country's religious freedom laws were "only an act of subterfuge, printed on paper as a means for the Bahraini ruling family to access the benefits of friendship with more powerful world leaders and obscure the misery of their human rights abuses".
The group urged the pope -- who has made standing up for marginalised people a hallmark of his papacy -- to draw attention to the "rampant discrimination" against Bahrain's Shiites.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting Bahrain's "targeted marginalisation of opposition figures" in the decade since pro-democracy protests erupted in 2011.
Bahrain's annual Formula One race has also frequently attracted criticism over the country's human rights record. In 2011, the Grand Prix was cancelled amid the harsh crackdown in the wake of the protests.
Looming over Francis' visit is the World Cup later this month in nearby Qatar, which has shone a spotlight on its human rights record, particularly treatment of its low-income migrant workers, women and the LBGTQ community.
Flocking to mass
On Saturday, the pope will celebrate a mass in a stadium in Bahrain's second-largest city Riffa before an expected 28,000 faithful, according to priest Charbel Fayad.
"We are happy to see many Christians from the region," he told AFP, saying he expected worshippers from other Gulf countries.
The pope -- who concludes his trip Sunday in Manama leading a prayer meeting with Catholic clergy -- has visited various Muslim-majority countries during his pontificate, including Jordan, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Egypt, Bangladesh, Morocco, Iraq and most recently in September, Kazakhstan.