The Holy See
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30 November - 1 December 2011


Discrimination against Christians and anti-Christian persecution are of particular concern to the Holy See, which regards this Conference as both timely and important. We also recognize the efforts of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Government, inter alia within the framework of osce, to alert other bodies and countries about the seriousness of the persecution of Christians in certain areas of the world.

In his Message for World Day of Peace 2011, the Holy Father insisted that “at present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith. Many Christians experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom. This situation is unacceptable, since it represents an insult to God and to human dignity; furthermore, it is a threat to security and peace, and an obstacle to the achievement of authentic and integral human development”. It is important that a global awareness of the problem be raised everywhere. The celebration of an International Day against persecution and discrimination of Christians might prove to be an important sign that Governments are willing to deal with this serious issue. Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that even in Europe more and more bias-motivated incidents against Christians are taking place. While not experiencing violent persecution, Christians, even in Europe, encounter discrimination, exclusion from public life and acts of vandalism against churches and cemeteries.

These acts of intolerance in an area where religious freedom is generally guaranteed is worrying and should make us reflect more profoundly on the relationship between this fundamental freedom and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions. A traditional but questionable theory argues that in countries and regions where tensions and disagreements between members of different religions exist, the limitation or denial of religious liberty, unpleasant though it may be, is useful or even necessary in order to limit religious violence. The theory of the clash of civilizations by the late professor Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) was also interpreted, or perhaps misinterpreted, in support of this position. More recently, social theory has argued just the opposite. In a recent book, The Price of Freedom Denied (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), American sociologists Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke proposed a mathematical model showing a direct correlation between the denial of religious freedom and hate crimes against religious minorities — or even against religious majorities. Contrary to what older theories maintained, a low degree of religious liberty creates a climate where tensions are exacerbated and, rather than decreasing, persecution and violence actually increase.

Accordingly, in order to prevent violence from occurring, it is very important to promote and consolidate religious freedom. In his address of 10 January 2011 to the members of the Diplomatic Corps, the Holy Father argued that religious freedom is “the first of human rights, not only because it was historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator”. He also noted that today in many regions of the world religious liberty is “often called into question or violated” and that “society, its leaders and public opinion are becoming more and more aware, even if not always in a clear way, of this grave attack on the dignity and freedom of homo religious”.

I would also like to recall Pope Benedict XVI’s Message for World Day of Peace 2011, the title of which is “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace”, a title which embodies in itself the following key concept: maximize religious freedom in order to prevent discrimination and violence. This document takes universal human dignity as its standpoint and as such may be of interest not only to Catholics. As the Pope said, “religious freedom is not the exclusive patrimony of believers, but of the whole family of the earth’s peoples”.

One important point is to clarify the notion of religious freedom. It cannot be restricted merely to freedom of worship, although the latter is obviously an important part of it. Religious freedom should include the right to preach, educate, convert and fully participate in public life. Restrictions to religious liberty, still prevailing in a number of countries, arise from a reductionist approach which limits religious freedom to individuals and denies it to communities. But, in fact, as the Message explains, “religious freedom is not limited to the individual dimension alone, but is attained within one’s community and in society, in a way consistent with the relational being of the person and the public nature of religion”. When freedom is limited in principle only to the individual dimension, it very often ends up being denied also to individuals, if not by the law, then by private discrimination and persecution.

We should also emphasize that true religious freedom is not synonymous with relativism, or with the modern or postmodern idea that religion is unimportant or a marginal component of public life. Pope Benedict xvi insists that Catholic teaching on religious liberty should not be misinterpreted as though it condoned relativism. The same can be said about freedom of conscience which does not mean the moral justification of any private opinion whatsoever. In this regard Blessed John Henry Newman once said: “Conscience has rights because it has duties” (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk). These duties are revealed to man by his very nature which — as the Holy Father stated in his speech to the German Parliament — must be respected: “Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled”. Speaking about religion and the freedom to seek God’s will, alone and in a community, does not mean abandoning reason but opening it to the transcendental dimension of the human being and recognizing that man is able to know the truth. This point is indeed important in international relations, since there are cultures in the world which are suspicious of the whole notion of religious freedom and are afraid that this may be an attempt to import into their countries a certain Western notion of relativism, which marginalizes religion and is truly foreign to their identities and traditions.

When we discuss denial of religious freedom and intolerance, normally certain countries in Asia or Africa immediately come to mind. On the other hand, we should not forget that there are problems for freedom of religion even in areas of the world where fortunately, as I mentioned, there is no violent persecution of Christians. In last January’s address to the Diplomatic Corps, the Pope said that “turning our gaze from East to West, we find ourselves faced with other kinds of threats to the full exercise of religious freedom. I think in the first place of countries which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance, but where religion is increasingly being marginalized. There is a tendency to consider religion, all religion, as something insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to modern society, and to attempt by different means to prevent it from having any influence on the life of society”.

Of course, nobody would confuse this marginalization of religion with the actual persecution and killing of Christians in other areas of the world. This conference, however, seeks to raise awareness for discrimination against Christians even in regions where international public opinion would normally not expect this to exist. Unfortunately, it is from the poisoned ground of the denial of religious freedom and discrimination of religion that, in the end, violence is almost always born.

As the Message for World Day of Peace 2011 argues, it is important that we continue our conversation on the substance of religious freedom, on its fundamental connection with the idea of truth, and on the difference between it and a form of relativism merely tolerating religion while considering it with some degree of hostility. “Religious freedom, the Message says, should be understood, then, not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth.… A freedom which is hostile or indifferent to God becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others. A will which believes itself radically incapable of seeking truth and goodness has no objective reasons or motives for acting save those imposed by its fleeting and contingent interests; it does not have an “identity” to safeguard and build up through truly free and conscious decisions. As a result, it cannot demand respect from other “wills”, which are themselves detached from their own deepest being and thus capable of imposing other “reasons” or, for that matter, no “reason” at all. The illusion that moral relativism provides the key for peaceful coexistence is actually the origin of divisions and the denial of the dignity of human beings”.

The Catholic Church proposes interreligious dialogue as one of the ways to overcome intolerance and discrimination. On 19 November, during his Apostolic Visit to Benin, the Pope acknowledged that “interreligious dialogue is not easy” and warned that “interreligious dialogue when badly understood leads to muddled thinking or to syncretism. This is not the dialogue which is sought”. By avoiding syncretism and relativism, we can find in interreligious dialogue a powerful tool against violence and discrimination. The Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World, celebrated in Assisi on 27 October 2011, was a witness of this truth to the whole world.

The Pope added in the 19 November speech in Benin that today “everyone of good sense understands that a serene and respectful dialogue about cultural and religious differences must be promoted. True interreligious dialogue rejects humanly self-centred truth, because the one and only truth is in God. God is Truth. Hence, no religion, and no culture may justify appeal or recourse to intolerance and violence. Aggression is an outmoded relational form which appeals to superficial and ignoble instincts”.

Ultimately, the Pope concluded, we should find the strength to combat intolerance and violence within ourselves. “I can only come to a knowledge of the other if I know myself. I cannot love unless I love myself (cf. Mt 22:39). Knowledge, deeper understanding and practice of one’s religion, are therefore essential to true interreligious dialogue. This can only begin by sincere personal prayer on the part of the one who desires to dialogue. Let him go in secret to his private room (cf. Mt 6:6) to ask God for the purification of reason and to seek his blessing upon the desired encounter. This prayer also asks God for the gift to see in the other a brother to be loved and, within his tradition, a reflection of the truth which illumines all people”.

The Holy See is grateful for this important Conference that will hopefully prove to be an important step forward in defending the civil and human rights of Christians, especially in Europe, where the denial of its cultural roots that formed this continent places stability and social cohesion at risk. Discrimination against Christians — even where they are a majority — must be faced as a serious threat to the whole society — and therefore should be fought, as it is done, and rightly so, in the case of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.