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A Pope Francis portrait outside the Sacred Heart church in Manama, Bahrain, on November 2, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Manama: Pope Francis is making the first-ever papal trip to Bahrain on Thursday to participate in a government-sponsored conference on East-West dialogue and to minister to Bahrain’s tiny Catholic community, part of his effort to pursue dialogue with the Muslim world.

This visit marks Francis’ second trip to a Gulf Arab state and his second to a majority Muslim nation in as many months, evidence that dialogue with the Muslim world has become a major cornerstone of his nearly 10-year papacy.

He visited the United Arab Emirates in 2019 and travelled to Kazakhstan for a meeting of religious leaders in September.

In addition to meeting with Muslim leaders in Bahrain, he will also celebrate Mass in the national stadium for the country’s Catholic community.

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church, one of the places Pope Francis will be visiting during his visit, in Manama. Image Credit: Reuters

Before Bahrain established the Gulf’s first church in the 1930s, priests would visit from Iraq to perform services for a small Catholic community.

Now, its ranks swollen by foreign workers, mostly from India and the Philippines, the community is preparing to welcome the pope, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

More than 80 years after its consecration, the Sacred Heart is on the pontiff’s itinerary in the in Bahrain whose Catholics now number about 80,000.

Last December, Bahrain also opened the cavernous Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, which stands near an oil well and is the peninsula’s biggest Catholic church.

Before the Sacred Heart, priests used to come from Iraq once a month to perform various ceremonies for the Christians in Bahrain.

About two million Catholics live in the Arabian peninsula, including one million in the UAE, according to the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia in Abu Dhabi.

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Last minute preparations underway at Bahrain National Stadium, where Pope Francis will hold a public mass during his visit, in Riffa. Image Credit: Reuters

After arriving on Thursday and meeting Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Eisa Al Khalifa, Pope Francis will hold a mass for about 28,000 people at Bahrain National Stadium on Saturday before leaving the country on Sunday.

A multinational choir of 100 people will sing in English, Tagalog, Arabic, Hindi and Latin at the mass, to be held at Bahrain National Stadium.

The pope will also address the interfaith conference Bahrain Forum for Dialogue and meet the grand imam of Egypt’s prestigious Al Azhar mosque, as well as members of the Muslim Council of Elders.

Bahrain’s Father Charbel Fayad said “the visit has a great strategic dimension by strengthening Bahrain’s role... [in] building [religious] bridges between East and West”.

Catholic worshipper Mona Koro, a Jordanian living in Bahrain, told AFP: “Our hearts rejoice... For His Holiness to preside over the Divine Liturgy... We feel lucky.”

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Najla Uchi shows a photo of Pope Francis hugging a Muslim scholar during an interview with her at her home in Manama. Image Credit: Reuters

Dream come true for woman whose father helped build church

When Pope Francis visits Bahrain this week, it will be a dream come true for many Christians in the Gulf Arab country, but especially for Najla Uchi, whose father helped build the first Roman Catholic church in the island state.

Lighting a candle at her home altar lined with religious icons, 78-year-old Najla Uchi said she had been saying a daily prayer for Pope Francis.

“Many people didn’t even dream that they could see the pope here,” she told Reuters. “When I go to church, they don’t believe it, they are all getting excited.”

Uchi’s father Salman was the main contractor for the Sacred Heart Church, built on a plot of land gifted by the ruling emir.

Its bells first rang on Christmas eve 1939, according to its website.

Her father came to Bahrain from Iraq and was later granted Bahraini citizenship. Uchi was born in Bahrain and is a citizen.

In the Sacred Heart Church yard, people pose for pictures in front of posters of Pope Francis.

“I am happy to be there [church] - not only because of my father, everything is wonderful there...we are all like one family,” Uchi said.

Vatican publishes Papal schedule
Thursday, November 3
9:30am Departure from Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
4:45pm Arrival at Sakhir air base in Awali and official welcome.
5:30pm Courtesy visit to King Hamad bin Eisa Al Khalifa at Sakhir Palace.
6:10pm Welcome ceremony in the courtyard of Sakhir Palace.
6:30pm Meeting with authorities, members of the diplomatic corps and local representatives at the palace. Speech by pope.

10am Closing of the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence at Al Fida’ Square at Sakhir Palace. Speech by pope.
4pm Private meeting with Sheikh Ahmad Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar Mosque and University, at the residence where the pope is staying on the grounds of the palace.
4:30pm Meeting with the members of the Muslim Council of Elders at the royal palace’s mosque. Speech by pope.
5:45pm Ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace at Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral. Speech by pope.

8:30am Mass at Bahrain National Stadium. Homily by pope.
5pm Meeting with young people at Sacred Heart School. Speech by pope.

9.30am Prayer meeting and Angelus prayer with bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and pastoral workers at Sacred Heart Church in Manama. Speech by pope.
12:30pm Farewell ceremony at Sakhir air base in Awali.
1pm Departure for Rome.