On his first full day in Bahrain, Pope Francis told attendees of a high-profile interfaith summit aimed at reinforcing dialogue with Islam that full religious freedom is a prerequisite to peace, and mere tolerance is not enough.
He also advocated for the rights of women and urged members of all faiths to actively condemn and ostracize those who use religion to justify violence.
Speaking on the closing day of the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence,” the pope noted that the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration states that whenever hatred, violence and discord are preached, “God’s name is desecrated.”
“All who are religious reject these things as utterly unjustifiable. They forcefully reject the blasphemy of war and the use of violence. And they consistently put this rejection into practice,” he said.
He stressed that “it is not enough to proclaim that a religion is peaceful; we need to condemn and isolate the perpetrators of violence who abuse its name. Nor is it enough to distance ourselves from intolerance and extremism; we need to counter them.”
Pope Francis is currently on a Nov. 3-6 visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain, a majority Muslim nation, making him the first pope to ever set foot in the Gulf nation as part of his broader effort to cement dialogue with the Muslim community.
After his speech at the forum, the pope will hold a meeting with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb. The two were recently in Kazakhstan together for another high-profile interfaith summit, and in February 2019 they signed a document on human fraternity during the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi.
Later in the day he will meet with members of the Muslim Council of Elders in Bahrain, and will end the day with an ecumenical prayer for peace in the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, the largest Catholic cathedral in the Persian Gulf, the land for which was gifted by Bahraini King Hamad Al Khalifa, who is a Sunni Muslim.
In his speech, Pope Francis pointed to the paradox that humanity has never before been so connected, yet at the same time is “much more divided than united.”
Noting that Bahrain itself means “two seas,” referring to its fresh underwater springs and the salty waters of the Gulf, he said humanity itself, and the religious leaders gathered for the forum, are also looking at two different seas: “the calm, freshwater sea of a serene life together, and the salty sea of indifference, marred by clashes and swept by the winds of war, its destructive billows growing ever more tumultuous, threatening to overwhelm us all.”
“Tragically, East and West increasingly resemble two opposing seas,” he said, noting that much of the world faces the same challenges, such as hunger, poverty, climate change, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and acute global inequalities.
In the face of these challenges, Francis said religious leaders must reject “isolating thinking,” and an approach to reality “that overlooks the great sea of humanity by concentrating only on its own narrow currents.”
Religious leaders, he said, “must surely commit themselves and set a good example” and have “a specific role to play” when it comes to tackling issues such as these.
To this end, he said the Document on Human Fraternity signed in Abu Dhabi in 2019, and the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration pose clear challenges for religions of all creeds when it comes to the topics of prayer, education, and action.
Speaking of the importance of prayer, Pope Francis said the greatest risk to humanity lies “in our human inclination to close ourselves in our own immanence, our own group, our own petty interests.”
Prayer, then, “is essential for purifying ourselves of selfishness, closed-mindedness, self-referentiality, falseness and injustice,” he said.
Those who pray, he said, not only receive peace and the ability to be a more credible witness, but they also avoid falling prey “to a paganism that reduces human beings to what they sell, buy or are entertained by, but instead to rediscover the infinite dignity with which each person is endowed.”
Pope Francis said religious freedom is an “essential premise” for this to happen, and insisted that “Any form of religious coercion is unworthy of the Almighty, since he has not handed the world over to slaves, but to free creatures, whom he fully respects.”
He urged religious leaders to commit themselves to ensuring “that the freedom of creatures reflects the sovereign freedom of the Creator,” and that places of worship “are always and everywhere protected and respected, and that prayer is favored and never hindered.”
Francis’s words hold significant weight not only for the region, where many minorities complain that they are treated as second-class citizens, but also for Shia activists in Bahrain, where there are sharp tensions between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority.
Shia activists have criticized the ruling Sunni family of discrimination and human rights violations against their community, including the destruction of over 30 Shia mosques and the closure of numerous Shia organizations in the wake of the country’s mass pro-democracy protests in 2011, led largely by Bahrain’s Shia majority.
Pope Francis told religious leaders at the forum that for genuine religious freedom to take root, “It is not enough to grant permits and recognize freedom of worship; it is necessary to achieve true freedom of religion.”
“Every creed is called to self-examination in this regard,” he said.
He also stressed the need for greater investment in education, saying, “where opportunities for education are lacking, extremism increases and forms of fundamentalism take root.”
The Bahrain Declaration says that “ignorance is the enemy of peace,” the pope said, “yet if ignorance is the enemy of peace, education is the friend of development.”
If education is to lead to development, it must not be “rigid and monolithic,” he said, but “but open to challenges and sensitive to cultural changes; not self-referential and isolating, but attentive to the history and culture of others; not stagnant, but inquisitive and open to embracing different and essential aspects of the one human family to which we belong.”
By embracing this approach, people of all faiths and cultures will be able to face problems without claiming to have “easy answers” and without falling into conflict, Francis said.
“It is unworthy of the human mind to think that power should prevail over reason, to bring the methods of the past to present-day issues, to apply models based on technology or mere convenience to the history and culture of human beings,” he said.
Truly educating the mind happens by encouraging mutual understanding,” he said, “For it is not enough to say we are tolerant: we really have to make room for others, granting them rights and opportunities.”
Pope Francis then highlighted what he said are “urgent” educational priorities, including the recognition of women in the public sphere and securing their right to education, employment, and ability to exercise both political and social rights.
He also mentioned the protection of the rights of children, so they can grow up supported and not “live in the grip of hunger and violence,” and stressed the need of an “education for citizenship,” which he said must be “based on the equality of rights and duties.”
“Here, commitment is demanded, so that we can establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority,” he said.
Misuse of the term “minority,” he said, “paves the way for hostility and discord; it undoes any successes and takes away the religious and civil rights of some citizens who are thus discriminated against.”
In terms of taking action, the pope quoted the Abu Dhabi document on human fraternity, which underlined the need for all religions to “stop supporting terrorist movements fueled by financing, the provision of weapons and strategy, and by attempts to justify these movements, even using the media.”
“All these must be regarded as international crimes that threaten security and world peace,” he said, insisting that religious leaders and people of faith, as people striving for peace, must be “opposed to the race to rearmament, to the commerce of war, to the market of death.”
“They do not support alliances against some, but means of encounter with all. Without yielding to forms of relativism or syncretism of any sort, they pursue a single path, which is that of fraternity, dialogue and peace,” he said.
Pope Francis closed his speech urging other interfaith leaders present to “press forward on the journey towards greater knowledge and understanding of one another.”
“Let us strengthen the bonds between us, without duplicity or fear,” he said, adding, “if different potentates deal with each other on the basis of interests, money and power plays, may we show that another path of encounter is possible.”
He also asked religious leaders to promote concrete initiatives ensuring that “the journey of the great religions will be ever more effective and ongoing, a conscience of peace for our world!”
As leaders of their respective faith communities, they must advocate on behalf of vulnerable populations such as the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the sick, and migrants, Francis said, adding, “If we who believe in the God of mercy, do not give a hearing to the poor and a voice to the voiceless, who will do it?”
“Let us take their side; let us make every effort to assist a humanity wounded and sorely tried! By doing so, we will draw down upon our world the blessing of the Most High,” he said, and prayed that their worship of God would be “matched by a concrete and fraternal love of our neighbor. So that, together, we may be prophets of community, artisans of unity and builders of peace.”