Pope Francis urged to speak out against human rights abuses in Bahrain visit

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Pope Francis on Monday has been asked by families of death row inmates in Bahrain to speak out on what the group says are human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of pro-democracy dissidents, during his trip to the Gulf state this week.

In an open letter released by the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), the group asked the leader of the Catholic church  to speak against capital punishment and defend political prisoners during his Nov 3-6 trip.

Bahrain has imprisoned thousands of protesters, journalists and activists – some in mass trials – since an anti-government uprising in 2011. It says it prosecutes in accordance with international law those who commit crimes, and rejects criticism from the United Nations and others over the conduct of trials and detention conditions.

“Our family members remain behind bars and at risk of execution despite the clear injustice of their convictions. Many of them were targeted because they took part in pro-democracy protests during the ‘Arab Spring’,” said the letter, written by families of 12 death row inmates.

“During your visit to Bahrain, we hope you can repeat your call to abolish the death penalty and for the sentences of our family members to be commuted,” it said.

Bahrain re-introduced the death penalty in 2017 after a moratorium.

In 2018, the Roman Catholic Church formally changed its teaching to declare the death penalty morally inadmissible and the pope has made many appeals for it to be banned worldwide.

BIRD, a non-profit group, also released an open letter to the pope from Ali Al-Hajee, who defined himself as a “prisoner of conscience” and who is close to completing a 10-year sentence which he said was connected to his participation in a pro-democracy demonstration.

“I invite you, in the name of humanity, to urge the King of Bahrain to abide by peace and to release me and all Bahraini political prisoners,” Al-Hajee’s letter said.

Bahrain’s government media office did not immediately respond to a Reuters’ request for comment on the letters.

US-allied Bahrain was the only Gulf state to see mass “Arab Spring” upheaval. The Sunni Muslim monarchy used force to suppress protests, led mostly by the Shi’ite Muslim community, and cracked down on sporadic unrest and dissent later.

At a briefing last week, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni was asked if the pope would speak about human rights while in Bahrain, given criticism by international rights groups of the country’s treatment of the Shi’ite majority.

“I won’t anticipate anything on what the pope will be saying in the next few days. The position of the Holy See and of the pope concerning religious freedom and liberty is clear and is known,” he said.

Bahraini authorities deny opposition accusations of decades of discrimination against Shi’ite Muslims in the island state.

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

He will meet King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa several times and stay in the royal compound because there is no Vatican embassy in Bahrain.

In 2019, Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates, the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula and say a Mass there.

Bahrain is about 70% Muslim and, unlike Saudi Arabia, allows the small Christian community – made up mostly of foreign workers – to practice their faith publicly in the two churches there. (Source: CNA)

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