On 5 November 2018, Italian public university Università di Roma La Sapienza inaugurated a new professorship in honour of Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa AlKhalifa, promoting religious pluralism despite continuous discriminations and human right violations carried out by the Bahraini government.
The professorship aims to raise awareness on the relations between cultures and religions among university students. It claims to foster religious pluralism and serve as an “antidote to extremism and radicalism.” At the inaugural ceremony, Bahrain’s Minister of Education Majid bin Ali AlNuaimi stressed the importance of religious tolerance and emphasized the positive aspects of living in a “multicultural and multi-religious society.” Nevertheless, since the 2011 pro-democracy movement, the Government of Bahrain has undertaken several actions to discriminate the Bahrain Shia majority population. Shia clerics have been targeted and harassed, while others have been stripped of their citizenship. Shia religious sites and structures have been demolished. Furthermore, Bahraini Shia face discrimination in the job market as they are excluded from jobs in the security sector, in which the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) also promotes sectarian materials to discredit non-Sunni Muslims. Shia teachers are discriminated in the hiring process, for the government choices to appoint foreign Sunni teachers.
In such a context, the Bahraini Government is promoting abroad a tolerant image of itself, seeking to hide these violations. Thus, this professorship, alongside with a Laurea Honoris Causa given to King Hamad in 2016 for his commitment to sponsor “interreligious coexistence”, does not help but contribute to whitewash religious discrimination.
In addition to La Sapienza’s lack of critical engagement, Italy is strengthening ties with the kingdom both diplomatically and economically. The Italian Embassy in Manama prioritises initiatives and meetings with officials of the Bahraini Government and members of the Royal Family, without giving the same attention to human rights defenders and activists. Moreover,
Italy is the first European trading partner with Bahrain and the Bahrain National Oil and Gas authority and Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (ENI), the main Italian multinational oil and gas company, have signed in January 2019 a Memorandum of Understanding to begin drilling in Bahrain with a first exploratory well. Finally, defence ties between the two countries have been reinforcing. The Italian defence company Leonardo SpA has provided services for the modernization of the technological systems of six Bahraini Maritime Forces military ships and training activities in 2018.
Given the systematic discriminations perpetrated by the Bahraini government, Italian initiatives raise several concerns. The country is failing to address critical infringements of human rights occurring in Bahrain, whereas it is promoting a misleading image of the country and whitewashing religious discrimination.
The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) strongly condemns La Sapienza’s professorship and calls upon the university to revoke it. Moreover, ECDHR calls upon Italy to improve its engagement on human rights issues and cease fostering a platform for whitewashing religious discrimination.
Update: on 23 April 2019, the Bharain’s Tatweer Petroleum, owned by the state, stated it is going to sign an agreement with the major Italian oil company ENI and the Japan’s JX Nippon to develop the Bahrain field.
Following the previously mentioned facts, The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) strongly disapproves the Italian-Bahraini economic relationship, especially in spite of the lack of a subsequent engagement in the human right situation.