A cutout image of Pope Francis is displayed at the Sacred Heart Church in the capital Manama. Image Credit: AFP

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis this week will become the first pontiff in history to visit Bahrain.

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.

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.

The pope is visiting Bahrain for the closing ceremony of “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence” and to meet members of the Catholic community.

He will meet King Hamad bin Eisa Al Khalifa and stay in the royal compound because there is no Vatican embassy in Bahrain.

On Friday, Francis plans to meet with Sheikh Ahmad 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.

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.

pope 1-1667302919831
A poster bearing the images of Bahrain's King Hamad bin Eisa Al Khalifa and Pope Francis are displayed at the Sacred Heart Church in the capital Manama. Image Credit: AFP

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.

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.