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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Pope Francis wrapped up the first-ever papal trip to Bahrain on Sunday by encouraging priests and nuns to keep ministering to the Gulf kingdom’s tiny Catholic flock. He specifically mentioned its prisoners, saying “the way in which these ‘least ones’ are treated is a measure of the dignity and the hope of a society.”

Francis again raised the plight of prisoners in Bahrain in the final event of his four-day trip. Human rights groups had urged Francis to use his Bahrain visit to call for an end to capital punishment and to advocate for political prisoners, 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.

Francis praised the prison ministry undertaken by some of the Catholic Carmelite nuns in Bahrain during a meeting with clergy and religious sisters at Sacred Heart Church in the capital Manama. Sister Rose Celine told Francis that her congregation works specifically with women prisoners, offering them counseling and religious direction.

Francis thanked her for her ministry and recalled that whenever he meets with inmates, he asks himself the same question: “Why them and not me?”

“Caring for prisoners is good for everyone, as a human community, since the way in which these ‘least ones’ are treated is a measure of the dignity and the hope of a society,” he said.

Francis has long maintained a prison ministry, staying in touch with Argentine inmates he got to know while archbishop in Buenos Aires. He frequently visits prisons during his foreign trips and has celebrated Holy Thursday liturgies with Rome-area inmates, but no such encounters were scheduled during his Bahrain trip.

Bahrain’s government maintains it respects human rights and freedom of speech, and that its criminal justice system is compliant with international law. However, activist groups repeatedly have criticized the condition of prisons and prisoners in the yearslong crackdown on dissent on the island.

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.

Upon arriving in Bahrain on Thursday, Francis called for authorities to refrain from recourse to the death penalty and to ensure basic human rights are guaranteed for all citizens. The government told The Associated Press the country has a “zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith.” Still, the crackdown largely has targeted the island’s Shiite majority and those calling for governmental reforms.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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