While visiting Bahrain on a Catholic pope’s first-time-ever trip to the country, Francis threw a huge mass for a small community of 16,000 Catholics in the Gulf state on Saturday, calling on them to show kindness to their hosts, even if they are sometimes looked down on.
Bahrain’s National Stadium was nearly full with about 30,000 people occupying its 35,580 seats on Saturday to participate in what is so far the second-largest gathering for a papal mass on the Arabian Peninsula, following one that drew more than 100,000 in the United Arab Emirates in 2019.
“A miracle,” is how 36-year-old Filipino Mary Grace Fortes, a receptionist at a Bahraini hotel, described the event. It is “so important for us.”
Following in the footsteps of many of her kith and kin, Ms Fortes, a married woman, sends remittances back to the Philippines to support her family, including her husband and 16-year-old son.
But apart from Catholics residing in Bahrain, hundreds working on a daily basis in Saudi Arabia were also bussed in over the 25-km King Fahd Causeway. In the Kingdom, there are no churches and Catholics cannot worship openly.
“The Bahrainis arranged everything perfectly for us,” Jos Chazoor, 53, who is from Kerala in India and works as a manager for a medical equipment company in Saudi Arabia, told Reuters.
Together with her 75-years-old mother, Ms Chazoor drives over the causeway from Saudi Arabia regularly to attend mass in one of Bahrain’s two churches, which provide pastoral care for the some 160,000 Catholics in Bahrain.
As the Pope arrived in an open popemobile, the stadium flickered with thousands of yellow-and-white Vatican flags waved by the passionate faithful. A speaker on the altar platform shouted “God bless the pope, God bless the royal family.”
Praising Bahrain’s relatively open policy towards non-Muslims, in his homily, Francis described the Gulf state as “a living image of coexistence in diversity, and indeed an image of our world, increasingly marked by the constant migration of peoples and by a pluralism of ideas, customs and traditions.”
This probably elicited a feeling of satisfaction in one of the sons of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and several government ministers who made their presence during the event.
Francis went on to urge his listeners to be kind even to those native people in the Gulf area who do not treat them well, identifying such behaviour as key to the Gospel message of loving your enemies.
He advocated always “persevering in good even when evil is done to us, breaking the spiral of vengeance, disarming violence, demilitarizing the heart.”
The stadium turned into a true Tower of Babel, echoing with prayers recited in Tagalog, Swahili, Malayalam, Tamil and Konkani – languages spoken by foreign workers, many of whom originate from Asia providing the backbone of Gulf economies, by working in sectors such as construction, hospitality, transport and the oil and gas sector.
As reported by the International Labour Organisation, the Gulf’s migrant workers have long faced problems including exploitation by recruitment agencies and employers, poor work conditions, limited access to justice and limited or no freedom of association.