29 October 2022, The Tablet

Pope Francis should use his visit to Bahrain to help improve human rights

by Drewery Dyke

Pope Francis should use his visit to Bahrain to help improve human rights

Pope Francis walks with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, prime minister of Bahrain, during a private audience at the Vatican.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

His Holiness, Pope Francis will be the first Pope to visit the Gulf state of Bahrain, 3-6 November. He will take part in the government-convened and ecumenically-themed “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence”. Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar al-Sharif, a preeminent Sunni Moslem institution, and more than 200 other religious leaders from various parts of the globe will likewise take part. He will also meet government leaders and hold a Papal Mass for which over 20,000 have, at the time of writing, registered to attend.

But Bahraini and international human rights bodies call on the Pope to use his moral authority in meetings with leading government officials in order to press for a real, marked improvement in the human rights situation in Bahrain, and, by extension, across the entire Gulf. Given the prevailing disconnect between the Gulf, its international allies and global human rights trends, the Holy See should do its utmost to act on these appeals.

Above all, His Holiness Pope Francis should call for an end to the use of the death penalty in Bahrain. The 2018 revision of the Catholic Church’s Catechism on the death penalty states that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and [the church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” On 31 August, Pope Francis reiterated that “the death penalty is unacceptable” and called on “all people of goodwill to mobilise for the abolition of the death penalty throughout the world.” 

This is not only a Christian matter: by the end of last year, 108 of the world’s 193 UN member states had abolished the death penalty, including at least 19 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. 

Bahrain, too, upheld a de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty for seven years, between 2011 and 2017. The Pope’s voice could help persuade the Bahraini authorities to at least suspend, once again, the imposition of the death penalty pending a review of its place in law. 

The Pope’s intervention would underline that in November, the UN General Assembly is expected to debate and later vote on a resolution calling on all UN member states to implement a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Bahrain has typically voted against the biannual resolution but it could be different this year.

This matters now since there are currently at least twenty-six individuals on death row in Bahrain. When and if King Hamad ratifies their sentences, their executions can be expected to follow quickly. Yet, as UN human rights bodies, Bahraini human rights organisations and activists have pointed out, the courts have convicted and sentenced defendants to death following manifestly unfair trials, based solely or primarily on confessions allegedly coerced through torture and ill-treatment. The courts unfairly convicted and sentenced at least eight men to death following credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment. 

The prosecution and courts failed to investigate these allegations, which in some cases were supported by the findings of even government physicians. Yet courts summarily concluded that no ill-treatment or abuse had occurred in summary rulings replete with inconsistencies and in some cases contradicted by undisputed evidence. 

Catholics in Bahrain – migrant workers from across Asia and Africa – quietly hope that the Pope will also speak up for them. Many hope that Pope Francis will press the Bahraini government to improve living conditions seeking to increase, for example, the income of the least well paid. Mirroring trends elsewhere in the world, while private sector firms post significant profits soar, migrants in Bahrain struggle with low wages and rising living costs. Just as importantly, the Pope should press for guarantees from the authorities that they will provide recompense where migrant workers have been ill treated, to help end abuses against migrant workers.

Finally, peaceful Bahraini political and human rights activists have urged the Pope to call for the release of all those imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression, including rights defenders, opposition activists, and journalists. Prominent Bahraini opposition leaders have languished in prison for more than a decade for their roles in the 2011 pro-democracy protests. These include Hassan Mushaima, the head of the unlicensed opposition group Al-Haq; Abdulwahab Hussain, an opposition leader; Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights defender; Abdel-Jalil al-Singace, the spokesman for Al-Haq; and activist Sayed Nizar Alwadaei. The government also unfairly detains religious leaders from the island’s majority Shi’a Moslem community, including Sheikh Abdul-Jalil Al-Miqdad and Sheikh Ali Salman. The visit of Pope Francis in light of the ongoing, arbitrary imprisonment of these and other individuals, on whose behalf UN human rights bodies have also intervened, strikes their families as a terribly sad indictment of the place of justice and human rights in international relations today.

Pope Francis’ visit can make a material difference to people’s lives in Bahrain. He can and should advance the cause of  human rights and respect for human dignity during his visit. An activist, student of religion urged Pope Francis to act on the very words he imparted on 10 August 2022 to members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “to continue working for truth, freedom, dialogue, justice and peace”. There is a chance to make a difference to thousands of people in Bahrain; I hope that the Pope can seize it and that the authorities will act on it.

Drewery Dyke is the International Partnerships Contact Point at Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. He is a former Researcher at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat. 

1. Vatican Press – New revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty – Rescriptum “ex Audentia SS.mi”, 02.08.2018, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/08/02/180802a.html , accessed 26 October 2022

2. Migrant-Rights.org – While private sector profits soar, migrants in Bahrain struggle with low wages and rising living costs, 29 July 2022, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2022/07/while-private-sector-profits-soar-migrants-in-bahrain-struggle-with-low-wages-and-rising-living-costs/

3. Vatican Press – Audience with the Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences / Udienza ai Partecipanti alla Plenaria della Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze, 10.09.2022, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2022/09/10/0666/01374.html#ing

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