Pope Francis in Bahrain: A Royal Reminder of Religious ‘Freedom of Choice’

The pontiff esteemed the welcome given to Christian migrants in the Gulf’s island kingdom, while discreetly calling for wider application.

After greeting Pope Francis last week with a red carpet, a 21-gun salute, and a contingent of horses to accompany his humble vehicle, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa highlighted one document to characterize his realm:

The 2017 Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.

“[Bahrain is] a cradle of mutual coexistence between followers of different faiths,” he said, “where everyone enjoys, under our protection after that of God Almighty, the freedom to perform their rituals and establish their places of worship, in an atmosphere of familiarity, harmony, and mutual understanding.”

With Bahraini flags flying side by side with the Vatican banner, Francis was profuse in his praise. Enduring severe knee pain, he noted the country’s centuries-old “Tree of Life,” a 32-foot acacia that somehow survives in the Arabian desert.

The tree honors its roots.

“One thing stands out in the history of this land: It has always been a place of encounter between different peoples,” said Francis. “This is in fact the life-giving water from which, today too, Bahrain’s roots continue to be nourished.”

In the island nation the size of New York City, flanked on either side by Iran and Saudi Arabia, from November 3–6 the pope visited its 160,000 Catholic migrants—primarily from the Philippines and India—living among a population of 1.5 million, evenly divided between foreign workers and citizens.

From 111 nationalities, 30,000 gathered this past Saturday at the national stadium for Mass.

Bahrain is a Sunni Muslim monarchy ruling over a narrow majority of Shiites. Christians comprise 10–14 percent of the population, with up to 1,000 Christian citizens originally from Iraq, Palestine, …

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