AWALI, Bahrain -- Pope Francis urged Bahrain authorities on Thursday to renounce the death penalty and ensure basic human rights are guaranteed for all citizens as he arrived in the Sunni-led kingdom that has been accused by rights groups of systematic discrimination against its Shiite majority.
With King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa by his side, Francis also urged the Arab Gulf nation to ensure "safe and dignified" working conditions for its immigrant laborers, who have long faced abuse and exploitation in the island's construction, oil extraction and domestic service industries.
While diplomatic, Francis didn't shy from some of the contentious social issues in Bahrain at the start of his four-day visit to participate in a government-sponsored interfaith conference on East-West dialogue and minister to the country's small Catholic community.
The 85-year-old Francis, who has been using a wheelchair for several months because of strained knee ligaments, said he was "in a lot of pain" as he flew to the Gulf. For the first time, he greeted journalists traveling with him seated rather than walking through the plane's aisle.
Human-rights groups and relatives of Shiite activists on death row had urged Francis to use his Bahrain visit to call for an end to capital punishment and to advocate for political dissidents, hundreds of whom have been detained since Bahrain violently crushed the 2011 Arab Spring protests with the help of neighboring Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
In the years since, Bahrain has imprisoned Shiite activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship, banned the largest Shiite opposition group and closed down its leading independent newspaper.
Bahrain's government maintains it respects human rights and freedom of speech. Ahead of the trip, the government told The Associated Press that it has a "zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith."
Francis referred indirectly to the sectarian strife as he arrived in the desert town of Awali and met with Al Khalifa at the Sakhir royal palace in the first-ever papal visit to Bahrain. Speaking to government authorities and diplomats from the palace's glistening courtyard, Francis praised Bahrain's tradition of tolerance and cited Bahrain's constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, as a stated commitment that needs to be put into practice.
Doing so, he said, would guarantee "that equal dignity and equal opportunities will be concretely recognized for each group and for every individual; that no forms of discrimination exist and that fundamental human rights are not violated but promoted."
Referring to the death penalty, Francis said the government must guarantee first and foremost the right to life, and "the need to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken."
According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, Bahrain in 2017 ended a de facto moratorium on the death penalty and has executed six prisoners since. The group and Human Rights Watch have documented a "dramatic increase" in the number of death sentences being handed down since 2011, with 26 people currently on death row, half for political activities. The groups have said some were convicted after "manifestly unfair trials based solely or primarily on confession allegedly coerced through torture and ill-treatment."
In the run-up to the visit, the Bahrain rights group released a letter from relatives of some of those death row inmates, begging Francis to raise the issue and to visit the Jau prison where many political detainees are held.
"Our family members remain behind bars and at risk of execution despite the clear injustice of their convictions," read the letter.