Pope Francis landed in the Kingdom of Bahrain Thursday, becoming the first pope to visit the Muslim island nation located in the Persian Gulf.

On the flight from Rome Nov. 3, the pope told journalists aboard the papal plane it is “an interesting trip [that will] make us think about sharing good news.”

Francis, who usually walks around the plane to greet media members, said he was in a lot of pain, and asked journalists to approach him where he was seated instead.

Pope Francis speaking on the flight to Bahrain, Nov. 3, 2022. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA
Pope Francis speaking on the flight to Bahrain, Nov. 3, 2022. Daniel Ibáñez / CNA

Pope Francis is visiting Bahrain Nov. 3-6. Located to the east of Saudi Arabia and west of Qatar, the country has a total population of 1.5 million, according to a 2022 estimate by the CIA World Factbook.

There are around 161,000 Catholics in Bahrain, many of whom are migrants from Asia, particularly the Philippines and India, according to 2020 Vatican statistics. There are two Catholic churches and 20 Catholic priests.

The visit's theme is “Peace on earth to people of goodwill,” inspired by Luke 2:14, and will include meetings with both Muslim leaders and the small Christian community.

The population is more than 70% Muslim, with the majority belonging to the Shiite branch of Islam, the country’s state religion. 

Speaking to journalists aboard the flight Nov. 3, Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said he hopes the papal visit will help improve the situation between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain.

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While Shia Muslims are the majority of the population, Bahrain’s royal family belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam, leading to protracted sectarian tension in the country. Human rights groups have also accused the government of committing abuses against both the Shia majority and migrant workers, and of unfair imprisonments.

Cardinal Ayuso said Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is the only person in the country with the power to release Shia political prisoners. After landing in the country, Pope Francis’s first appointment will be a private meeting with the king.

The pope will also address members of the government and civil society on Nov. 3.

On the second day of the visit, the pope will give the closing speech at the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence. 

Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, is also traveling to Bahrain to participate in the forum with Pope Francis. The religious leaders most recently met in September at an interreligious summit in Kazakhstan.

Francis will meet privately with el-Tayeb before speaking to members of the Muslim Council of Elders at the mosque of Sakhir Royal Palace.

Pope Francis landed in Awali, Bahrain, on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. Alexey Gotovskiy / CNA
Pope Francis landed in Awali, Bahrain, on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. Alexey Gotovskiy / CNA

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The day will close with an ecumenical meeting and prayer for peace in Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, consecrated on Dec. 10, 2021. The ark-shaped Catholic cathedral seats 2,300 people and was built as part of a 95,000-square-foot complex.

On Nov. 5, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at Bahrain National Stadium and meet with youth. His final morning, Nov. 6, will consist of a prayer meeting and Angelus with local Catholics at Sacred Heart Church in Manama.

Before leaving Rome, in the afternoon on Nov. 2, Pope Francis visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major to pray for the success of the trip through the intercession of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani.

It was Francis’ 100th visit to the historic Roman icon.

Alexey Gotovskiy contributed to this report.