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What Pope Needs to Know about Bahrain’s Realities

Alwaght Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Bahrain to participate in “East-West dialogue” conference that is set to be held on November 3-6 in the Persian Gulf Arab country. According to the Bahraini government, the conference is arranged by King Hamad Center for Peaceful Coexistence (KHCPC) in association with Bahrain Muslim Council of Elders and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.  

Sheikh Khaled bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the head of the board of trustees of the KHCPC asserted that the Arab monarchy’s ruling family is interested to spread the culture of peace and peaceful coexistence among the religions and transform into a global role model for acceptance of religious and sectarian diversity. 

The opposition’s statement on the government’s ostensible conference 

The Al Khalifa regime’s remarks about religious tolerance come as the opposition body, including the Wifaq National Islamic Movement, Bahrain Islamic Movement, Wifa Islamic Movement, Islamic Action Society, February 14 Youth Movement, and Freedom and Democracy Movement in a joint statement accused the regime of hypocrisy and iron-fisted crackdown on a large part of the Shiite majority in the country.  

Addressing the Pope, the Bahraini movements said that Al Khalifa regime raised the ‘religions dialogue’ at a time the political and human rights condition is worsening in the country and the political differences between the government and people are on the rise. Also, the repression of the critics and opposition has increased and many clerics and activists are in jail. “The people of Bahrain are usually honored with meeting of the spiritual leaders from all countries and they welcome the clerics based on the religions and values. 

The opposition factions continued that Bahrain in reality faces many crises and countless problems at all levels. Persecution, injustice, repression and oppression, and religious, political, and sectarian differences are rife in the country. 

According to this enlightening statement, Al Khalifa regime imprisons and banishes the scholars, demolishes the mosques, and desecrates the sanctities. The regime also applies racial and sectarian discrimination against the nation. Revoking the nationality of top Shiite cleric Sheikh Issa Qassem by itself questions the credibility of the conference that is to be hosted by Bahrain. 

Also, while the Al-Khalifa regime is trying to distort and censor the internal realities of Bahrain to the foreign guests and the media during the visit of Pope Francis, which will be the focus of the world media, the arrested clerics in a statement addressed the Pope. They said, “you will set foot in a land where there is no government slogan of tolerance and coexistence for its own people, and while justice and charity are spoken of, injustice and aggression are seen in practice.” 

Aspects of systemic repression of Shiites by Al Khalifa 

Al-Khalifa regime has taken the posture of defending the freedom and dialogue of religions, while it has been one of the most repressive political systems in the world when it comes to the basic political, religious, social and economic rights of Shiites.

It hypocritically permits the establishment of a temple for Hindus, a church for Christians, and a synagogue for Jews, while in a completely different behavior continuously violates the religious freedom of Shiites and bars them of their religious rights. 

This discrimination against the Shiites comes while they make up the majority of Bahrain’s 1.7 million populations. According to Boston University’s World Religions Database, Bahrain’s population includes approximately 1.4 million Muslims, 205,000 Christians, and 109,000 Hindus. 
The government does not publish statistics about the population composition but around 65 to 70 percent of the Bahraini population is Shiites. 

The ruling Al Khalifa family systemically works to sideline the Shiites from politics, culture, and economy. Even the school textbooks target the Shiite beliefs. Top Shiite figures in the country are persecuted and currently tens of clerics are jailed and subjected to torture or banished. 

In order to prevent leakage of the internal realities of Bahrain, the Al-Khalifa regime imposes severe media censorship and does not allow free investigation by international human rights organizations. These organizations sometimes shed light on existing discrimination in their reports. 

For example, a group of independent UN rights investigators in 2016 reported on Al Khalifa’s list of charges against the Shiites, including illegal gatherings, hate incitement against the government, money laundering, and terrorist actions, to limit peaceful religious gatherings for expression of faith and belief. The UN experts described these charges as “baseless and aimed at justifying the intentional targeting of the Shiites in the country.” 

The Bahraini authorities also use the Bahraini Citizenship Law or the ‘Law on Community Protection against Terrorist Acts’ as a tool to suppress and intimidate Shiites, and by resorting to this tool, they expel Shiite political and religious leaders from Bahrain in staged trials. 

Rights activists describe revocation of citizenship of Sheikh Issa Qassem on June 20, 2016, without giving him defense rights an example of these rulings by the repressive regime. 

NGOs, media outlets, and opposition leaders in prison have said that the government continues to interrogate, detain and arrest Shiite clerics. NGOs even state that prison authorities routinely deny Shiite prisoners treatment more than the Sunni prisoners. In August 2020, family members of Shiite prisoners in Jau Prison tweeted that the prisoners were on hunger strike to protest religious discrimination and lack of access to medical facilities.

Even some Shiite political prisoners die suspiciously in prison. For example, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior announced on April 5, 2020 that the Shiite prisoner Abbas Hassan Ali Mullaullah died of a heart attack in Jau prison. Shia Rights Watch reported that according to other prisoners, Mullahullah requested medical treatment on April 4 complaining of chest pains, but the authorities denied him medical treatment. 

The government restrictions on the Shiites are not limited to political crackdown, and the government has always prevented free arrangement of religious ceremonies. For example, in January, King Hamad bin Isa of Bahrain created two independent counsels under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs and Endowments to oversee Sunni and Shiite endowments, with powers over endowment assets, including revenues and lands. This action, which was for the government’s further control over the activities of the endowment boards of mosques was strongly opposed by Shiite religious leaders, especially the exiled Sheikh Issa Qassem who described the move as “illegitimate and hostile to the Shiite fiqh.” 

The government even meddles in the Shiite sermons to sway them in order for the Shiite clerics to mention issues of government interest. This policy led to summoning of Shiite leaders for interrogation regarding the sermons in religious ceremonies like Ashura and Friday prayers. 

Banning major Shiite religious ceremonies, especially Muharram mourning, and the severe restrictions on the participation of Bahraini citizens in the Arbaeen procession in Iraq, have been for long years part of the government’s systematic crackdown on the Shiites. During the outbreak of the coronavirus, NGOs, Shiite clerics, and opposition politicians stated that the authorities imposed additional restrictions on Shiite religious rituals under the pretext of fighting the spread of the disease, while government protocols for other socio-religious gatherings such as Hindu and Christian holidays were not strict. 

Shiite leaders and community activists suggests that the government continues to discriminate against Shiite citizens and treats preferentially the Sunni citizens when it comes to scholarships, state employment, and army service. 

Political and rights activists report higher unemployment rates, more restricted social promotion outlook, and lower socio-economic conditions for the Shiites than for the Sunnis in Bahrain. 

These facts have caused an American activist group that promotes human rights in Bahrain to ask the Pope to either cancel his upcoming visit to this Persian Gulf country or criticize repressive and discriminatory government actions. 

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) in a October 12 statement suggested that “public displays of friendly co-existence with some religions does not absolve a dictator of his repression and harassment of others.” 

The statement further suggests that a majority of Bahrain’s population are Shiites who are “purposely kept down through religious discrimination, harassment, and by force.” 

Abusing the Pope as a game piece in normalization 

By raising flag of normalization with Israel, Al Khalifa tries to cover up its home legitimacy crisis and heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful protests in hope of international credit. While it is tough with religious beliefs of a large of population, it recently allowed the first Jewish wedding in 52 years in mid-October. 

Although the Western media propagate normalization as a step to tolerance and religious dialogue, establishing relations with a regime adopting racial and religious apartheid against the Palestinian and killing children in the front of the world eyes has nothing to do with religious dialogue. Even in recent months the Christians have not been immune to the Israeli occupation’s religious crackdown in the occupied Palestinian territories. 

Although Catholic leaders hailed Bahraini government for donating a land to build the country’s biggest Catholic church, it remains a decision of the Pope to be the voice of the oppressed and abused Shiite Bahraini citizens against an intolerant and repressive regime or be a piece in an evil game designed by the Israelis and Arab dictators. 

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