Pope Francis Visits Bahrain: What do Prisons...
About two weeks ago, the Holy See Press Office announced the schedule of the Supreme Pontiff’s visit to Bahrain, to participate in the conclusion of the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence. He will then meet with some spiritual, political, and civil figures between the 3rd and 6th of November, 2022.
At first, the scene may seem ordinary, but the exception is that the first reaction of welcoming the Pope was by the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society – whose Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman is still in prison, along with four religious scholars, who are religious and political leaders also detained in Jaw Central Prison – in a statement issued on October 25.
These positions that were issued by the political community – which the government is still searching for any opportunity to politically crush – express the level of vitality and political awareness of the movement in Bahrain. The detainees are some of the most prominent advocates of religious tolerance, whose speeches constituted a basic guarantee for preserving national, political and religious unity for many years. The ruling authority considers their continued detention a constant goal for revenge because of their demands for equal citizenship, social justice, the preservation of human values, and political partnership.
So, what is the story behind the government’s slogan of religious tolerance? And, what do prisons tell us about the reality of the internal situation?!
Frankly, the thing that the government has been the best at doing since the beginning of the political crisis, is searching for media alternatives to cover up the reality of the political crisis. We are used to seeing the government organize international conferences and participate in such forums in order to exploit them to cover up the internal reality. Otherwise, who would believe that the ruling authority demolished 38 mosques and included Shiite religious scholars in 19 decisions to revoke nationalities, the most prominent of them is one of the fathers of the Bahraini Constitution, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim. He is the most prominent leader of the Shiite community, and he is living in exile after the ordeal of a siege and house arrest that extended for a long time. In addition, the Islamic Scholars Council (the highest religious body) was dissolved, and other forms of sectarian and political persecution spread in state institutions through discrimination in government jobs, ministerial positions, unfair electoral system, and the powerless legislative authority.
By the way, it is not a coincidence that the nominal parliamentary and municipal elections will take place days after the Pope's visit and the organization of this event; especially in light of the people’s substantial elections boycott that is being repeated for the third time after the withdrawal of the Al-Wefaq parliamentary bloc from the parliament in 2011. Their withdrawal was as a result of the start of the political crisis, as well as the authorities’ amplification of the political isolation project. In this project, the authorities not only deprived members of the dissolved opposition political societies of their political rights, but also removed nearly 100,000 Bahrainis from the voter registration lists because they did not vote in the elections of the past years, as a punitive measure, and as a proactive tactic to tamper with the election results. In fact, no one knows what the final total of the political naturalization bloc added to the voter lists is, which at the very least is no less than 80,000 people.
Despite the fact that the various violations are not limited to targeting the political right and spreading hate speech – which at times included the same vocabulary that we heard from ISIS – through the platforms of official figures against the opposition, prisons are one of the clear manifestations of the crisis in Bahrain. The figures who preach about the values of religious tolerance are imprisoned, and one of them, religious scholar Sheikh Abduljalil Al-Miqdad – after being subjected to many violations – was taken to the hospital in the trunk of the security forces’ car, and he almost suffocated. As for the reason behind depriving him of medical treatment, it is a part of the prisons story.
Since 2011, the security community that supervises the administration of prisons, with the direct follow-up of the Bahraini Minister of Interior, has been working on developing torture methods, until the denial of medical treatment became one of the preferred methods of torture among security leaders, especially for prisoners of conscience who suffer from incurable diseases. Aside from what the detainees say about the effect of electric shocks on private parts or of pulling out nails – as happened to Ali Al-Arab before forcing him to sign confessions due to which he will be executed later on in 2019 – isn’t it strange that the security forces use the same expressions of sectarian contempt and religious disrespect against prisoners of conscience that were used by those who were spreading hate messages on social media or in the government press – there is no free press in Bahrain. One year, Bahrain TV showed the protesters with red circles around their heads to incite their arrest.
In these prisons, through which more than 20,000 prisoners of conscience have passed, you will not find a single prisoner among them who rejects the values of religious tolerance. Rather, they will have one position, which is expressed in the discourses of civil society regarding the Pope's visit. Just as they reject political persecution against them in Bahrain, they also reject any persecution that have been perpetrated for religious reasons against Christians and others anywhere, especially in the areas where Takfirist groups were active. Knowing this is not very difficult, if the Pope asked to visit religious and political leaders in Bahraini prisons, he would hear it himself!
Chairman of the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights