Pope Francis meets CEO of ITA Airways Fabio Maria Lazzerini as he boards a plane for his four-day visit to Bahrain, in Rome, Italy, Thursday Nov. 3, 2022. Image Credit: AP

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis is bringing his message of dialogue with the Muslim world to the kingdom of Bahrain, where the government is hosting an interfaith conference on East-West coexistence.

The 85-year-old pope, who has been using a wheelchair for several months because of strained knee ligaments, said on Thursday he was in “a lot of pain’’ as he headed to Bahrain, and for the first time greeted journalists travelling with him while seated rather than walking through the aisle.

Francis has long touted dialogue as an instrument of peace and believes a show of interfaith harmony is needed, especially now given Russia’s war in Ukraine and regional conflicts, such as in Yemen. On the eve of the trip, Francis asked for prayers so that the trip will promote “the cause of brotherhood and of peace, of which our times are in extreme and urgent need.’’

The visit is Francis’ second to a Gulf Arab country, following his 2019 landmark trip to Abu Dhabi, where he signed a document promoting Catholic-Muslim fraternity with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb. Al Tayeb is the grand imam of Al Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo. Francis followed that with a 2021 visit to Iraq, where he was received by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, one of the world’s pre-eminent Shiite clerics.

Pope meets CEO of ITA Airways Fabio Maria Lazzerini as he boards a plane for his four-day visit to Bahrain. Image Credit: AP

Francis will meet again this week in Bahrain with Al Tayeb, as well as other prominent figures in the interfaith field who are expected to attend the conference, which is similar to one hosted last month by Kazakhstan that Francis and Al Tayeb also attended.

Members of the regional Muslim Council of Elders, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew, a representative from the Russian Orthodox Church and rabbis from the United States are all expected, according to the Bahrain programme.

The trip will also allow Francis to minister to Bahrain’s Catholic community, which numbers around 80,000 in a country of around 1.5 million. Most are workers hailing from the Philippines and India, though trip organizers expect pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries will attend Francis’ big Mass at the national stadium on Saturday.

Bahrain is home to the Gulf’s first Catholic Church, the Sacred Heart parish, which opened in 1939, as well as its biggest one, Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral.

The church, with a capacity of 2,300, opened last year in the desert town of Awali on land gifted to the church by King Hamad bin Eisa Al Khalifa.

In fact, the king presented Francis with a model of the church when he visited the Vatican in 2014 and extended the first invitation to visit.

Francis will visit both churches during his visit and is likely to thank the king for the tolerance the government has long shown Christians living in the country.

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.