Pope Francis spoke against the death penalty on Thursday at the start of a trip to Bahrain where the Shi'ite Muslim opposition accuse the Sunni monarchy of overseeing human rights abuses and families of death row inmates had sought help from the pope.
The pontiff's visit, only the second by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, is aimed at improving ties with the Islamic world but thrust him into the Sunni-Shi'ite rights divide in Bahrain, which crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 2011.
Referring to Bahrain's constitution, the pope said commitments should constantly be practiced so that "religious freedom will be complete", equal dignity and equal opportunities "concretely recognised for each group", that no forms of discrimination exist and that human rights "are not violated".
"I think in the first place of the right to life, of the need to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken," he added.
Pope Francis was speaking at the Sakhir Palace alongside King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. From the stage, the 85-year-old pope, suffering from knee pain, was led in a wheelchair to the entrance of the courtyard with the king walking alongside. The pope rose and the two embraced before the pontiff got into a white Fiat 500 with Vatican plates.
King Hamad, in his speech, said his country protected the freedom of all faiths to "perform their rituals and establish their places of worship". Bahrain, he said, rejected religious discrimination and condemned "violence and incitement" under a declaration issued by the state several years ago.
The Gulf state seeks to strengthen "our common purpose towards a world in which tolerance prevails while striving for peace, and rejects whatever divides its unity and threatens its civilisational development", he said.
The pope's visit has drawn attention to tensions between the Sunni-led government and the Shi'ite community that led a sizeable pro-democracy uprising in the 2011 "Arab Spring", which Bahrain quashed with Saudi and UAE help.
Bahrain has imprisoned thousands of protesters, journalists and activists - some in mass trials - since the uprising and cracked down on later sporadic unrest and dissent.
Families of death row inmates in Bahrain appealed to the Argentine-born pope to speak out against capital punishment and defend political prisoners during his trip.
Bahrain rejects criticism from the United Nations and others over its conduct of trials and detention conditions. It says it prosecutes in accordance with international law and that its legal and judicial system continues to be reformed.
During the Nov. 3-6 trip, Francis will address the "Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence", have talks with King Hamad, and meet the Muslim Council of Elders.
Pope Francis in 2019 visited fellow Gulf state the United Arab Emirates, which along with Bahrain forged ties with Israel under pacts called the Abraham Accords in 2020.
Bahrain is about 70% Muslim and, unlike Saudi Arabia, allows its community of about 160,000 Catholics - made up mostly of foreign workers - to practice their faith publicly in two churches.
It is home to the first Catholic church to be built in the Gulf area in modern times, which opened in 1939, as well as the cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest Catholic church on the Arabian Peninsula.
The pontiff's knee pain was so bad on the way to Bahrain that he was unable to walk around the papal plane greeting accompanying reporters as he usually does. The pope has walked with a cane since he tore a ligament in his knee early this year.