As a member of Bahrain’s Jewish community, I often speak about the kingdom’s commitment to coexistence. Bahrain, an island long known for its coexistence and freedom of religion, has always welcomed people from different faiths and backgrounds to its shores. And while in recent years, many global news outlets have focused on the Jewish community following the signing of the Abraham Accords, next week all eyes will be on Bahrain as Pope Francis visits and leads a Mass.
Our Bahraini Jewish families have always lived alongside Bahraini Muslim and Christian families. Our grandparents shared stories of their neighbors helping to heat their food on Shabbat. Generations later, we naturally continue to celebrate important events together, including attending each other’s weddings, Iftar meals, Christmas parties and visits to our recently renovated synagogue. Under His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s leadership, Bahrain has been committed to spreading a culture of peace and dialogue. These values are inculcated in us as young children and they guide how we live as adults.
Growing up in Bahrain, everyone knew we were Jewish. I went to a Catholic school and was taught by nuns. My friends were of different religions and backgrounds and we grew up respecting each other’s differences. I never felt the need to hide my religion. We celebrated our major holidays like Ramadan, Hanukkah, Diwali and Christmas together.
Just as Bahrain is home to the oldest operational synagogue in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, it is also home to the oldest church in the region, which is located in Manama. Last year, the largest Catholic church in the region opened its doors in Bahrain. The cavernous cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia seats 2,300 people. As Bahrainis, we are incredibly proud of our county’s commitment to all faith-based communities, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Baháʼí and Hindus, as well as the importance we place on making sure that each community has a beautiful place to pray and celebrate their festivals together.
It’s an honor for us to have the pope visit next week and lead Mass for his followers. The excitement in the kingdom is palpable and crosses over to the other faith communities. We all recognize the importance of this visit. The pope will attend the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue, an interreligious conference in which Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, and more than 200 other religious leaders from all over the world, will take part.
During his visit, the pope will hold an ecumenical meeting and prayer for peace at the Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral in Awali, celebrate mass in the Bahrain National Stadium with more than 25,000 people and end his trip by meeting with young people at the Sacred Heart School. This is the very school I attended years ago, where I was exposed in a wonderful way to the various religions practiced in Bahrain. Coexistence isn’t just a mantra for us, it is how we live our lives and what leads to the success and flourishing of all our communities.
Houda Nonoo served as the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United States from 2008-2013. She serves on the board of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities. For more information, visit www.gulfjewish.org or follow her on Twitter at @hnonoo75.