MANAMA, Bahrain — Thousands of Christians from around the Gulf packed Bahrain’s sports stadium on Saturday for Pope Francis’ big Mass, as he shifted the attention of his four-day visit to ministering to the Catholic community in the overwhelmingly Muslim region.
The English-language liturgy was clearly geared toward the South Asian migrant workers who make up the bulk of the Gulf’s Catholics, with prayers in Malay, Tagalog and Tamil and a priest offering English translations of the pope’s native Spanish homily.
Pilgrims wearing identical white caps to shade them from the morning sun waved the yellow and white flags of the Holy See as Francis looped around the Bahrain National Stadium in his popemobile before Mass. A big cheer erupted when he kissed a young girl in a bubble-gum pink dress who was brought to the vehicle.
According to the Vatican, local organizers estimated some 30,000 people attended the service. Organizers had said that passes to the event were snapped up within two days of them becoming available, with pilgrims coming from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries.
“This is actually a very huge honor,” said Bijoy Joseph, an Indian living in Saudi Arabia who attended. “This is like a blessing for us to be part of our Holy Father’s papal Mass in Bahrain.”
Francis is on the first-ever papal visit to the island kingdom the size of New York City that lies off the coast of Saudi Arabia. The primary aim was to participate in a government-sponsored interfaith conference to promote Catholic-Muslim dialogue. But for the final two days, he shifted gears to focus on ministering to the Catholic community, a minority in the country of around 1.5 million.
PHOTOS: Thousands pack Bahrain national stadium for pope's main Mass
Most are workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and other South Asian countries, many of whom have left behind their families to work in Bahrain’s construction, oil extraction and domestic service industries.
In his homily, Francis urged them to do good, and turn the other cheek, “even when evil is done to us.”
“There will be cases of friction, moments of tension, conflicts and opposing viewpoints, but those who follow the Prince of Peace must always strive for peace. And peace cannot be restored if a harsh word is answered with an even harsher one,” he said. “No, we need to ‘disarm,’ to shatter the chains of evil, to break the spiral of violence, and to put an end to resentment, complaints and self-pity.”
Sebastian Fernandez, an Indian living in Bahrain, said he was blessed to be able to attend. “It will be a fruitful Mass and we are happy to see our pope,” he said.
After the Mass, Francis was meeting with young people at the Sacred Heart school, which dates from the 1940s and is affiliated with the church of the same name that was the first Catholic Church built in the Gulf. Francis wraps up his visit Sunday meeting with priests and nuns at the church.
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