Pope Francis - A messenger of peace

Inside the Mosque of Sakhir Royal Palace in Bahrain, Pope Francis sat in the middle of a semi-circle surrounded by Muslim dignitaries wearing traditional robes and by a number of his own cardinals who are dressed in white cassocks with red sashes.

Nov 18, 2022

Pope Francis with the grand imam Sheik Ahmed Muhammad Al-Tayyib at the meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders in Bahrain, Nov. 4, 2022. (Vatican Media)


By Loup Besmond de Senneville

Inside the Mosque of Sakhir Royal Palace in Bahrain, Pope Francis sat in the middle of a semi-circle surrounded by Muslim dignitaries wearing traditional robes and by a number of his own cardinals who are dressed in white cassocks with red sashes. A warm sun still shines in the yellowing sky, causing the mosque’s white marble courtyard to glow.

Shortly before night fell, the Pope and the man sitting next to him – the grand imam of Al-Azhar – listened to a little boy chant a few suras from the Quran and a young girl read a passage from the Bible. When the youngsters had finished, the 85-year-old Pope took to the floor to call on the Muslim sages and the high Catholic dignitaries to work for dialogue and peace.

A Pope worried about the future of the world
Francis’ visit to the mosque on November 4 will remain one of the highlights of his Nov 3-6 visit to Bahrain. In this small Gulf country where skyscrapers, gigantic shopping malls and large hotels seem to be located in the middle of the desert, over the course of four days the Pope pleaded with all his might for an improvement in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

He didn’t do so only at the mosque, but also at the Interfaith Forum for Peace. In addition to this, Francis forcefully implored Catholics of the region to abandon violence in favour of fraternity, during a Mass he led on Nov 5 at Bahrain National Stadium. Those who encountered the Pope during his brief visit to the Gulf country saw a Pope who is deeply worried about the future of a world shaken by wars, such as those in Ukraine and Yemen. They also saw a man extremely concerned about two gaping divides: first, between East and West; and, second, between North and South.

A number of one-on-one meetings Francis relentlessly spoke on the theme of peace, condemning the financing of terrorism, reminding religious leaders of their role in opposing war. At the same time, he addressed Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and faith leaders in the region who provide a religious justification for terrorist actions.

He held a number of face-to-face meetings with religious and political leaders from all walks of life, from Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to the minister of tolerance for the United Arab Emirates and the president of Tatarstan.

Throughout his four-day visit, Francis tried to convey to the Muslims present how necessary it is for them to dialogue among themselves. More than three years after meeting the king of Morocco, and 18 months after meeting with Shiite grand ayatollah, Ali Al Sistani, in Iraq, the Pope displayed his good relationship with the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, one of the Sunni authorities with whom he signed the historic Document on Human Fraternity in 2019.

“The Pope wants to inscribe the dialogue with Muslims in time,” said Fr Emmanuel Pisani, a Dominican friar from Cairo (Egypt) who was seated in the front row at the 30,000-strong papal Mass on Saturday. The dialogue the Pope’s promoting “takes a little time”, admitted Fr Pisani, who specialises in Islamic studies.

“To what extent can the dialogue that the Pope establishes with senior Shiite and Sunni dignitaries help Muslim leaders talk to each other?” the Dominican asked. “It is very, very difficult, but the Pope is helping to build bridges between religious communities.”

Pope to Imam el-Tayeb: “You were very courageous”
Did Ahmed el-Tayeb signal that such an inter-Muslim dialogue was possible when, while sitting next to Francis that Saturday morning, he launched “an invitation” to his “Shiite Muslim brothers” to carry out a common legal reflection?

Fr Pisani said he believes so. In any case, a few hours later when welcoming the imam to his temporary lodgings in Bahrain, the Pope told him, “Today you were very courageous when you spoke of dialogue among Muslims.”

A demonstration that took place on Saturday evening in front of a school where the Pope was about to speak to young people, was a reminder of the tensions that exist between Shias and Sunnis. A dozen people had come to demand the release of imprisoned relatives. Before being dispersed by the police, one could read on the placards they carried, “Coexistence is not just a slogan.”

Although the kingdom has always denied holding any political prisoners, the fate of Shiite prisoners, especially minors, was discussed privately by the pope and his entourage in Bahrain. Sources said Francis raised the issue directly with the king, while Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher – respectively the Vatican’s Secretary of State and “foreign minister” – also advocated in this regard during their meetings with the kingdom’s authorities.

Efforts Even if these efforts have little chance of succeeding in the short term, diplomatic sources insist they are helping to put pressure on the authorities. The same applies to the death penalty, which the Pope did not hesitate to criticise directly during his first speech, which was held in the presidential palace.

Francis also took advantage of his presence in this region largely dominated by Islam to support Catholics in Bahrain and surrounding countries. While Christians in the country where he was present are free to practise their faith, this is far from being the case for Catholics in neighbouring countries, such as the 2,000 faithful living in Saudi Arabia who attended the Saturday morning papal Mass.

A packed stadium
Before a stadium packed with Catholics from India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka – all of whom work in Gulf states such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait – Francis urged the worshipers to be messengers of peace, and to resist violence, despite the difficulties. “(Jesus) suffers when he sees in our own day and in many parts of the world, ways of exercising power that feed on oppression and violence, seeking to expand their own space by restricting that of others, imposing their own domination and restricting basic freedoms, and in this way oppressing the weak,” the Pope said.

He did not deny that there are difficulties, but urged the Catholics living in the region “to practise universal fraternity, concretely and courageously, persevering in good even when evil is done to us, breaking the spiral of vengeance, disarming violence, and demilitarising the heart”.-- LCI

(The writer travelled with the Pope during the Nov 3-6 visit to Bahrain.)

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