Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted the “urgency” surrounding the situation.
“Yesterday’s events in Libya and Egypt point to what is at stake,” he said. “We need to be respectful of other religious traditions at the same time that we unequivocally proclaim that violence in the name of religion is wrong.”
The cardinal’s comments came at a Sept. 12 international religious freedom symposium co-sponsored by the bishops’ conference, Catholic Relief Services and The Catholic University of America.
He observed that thousands of Christians are being forced out of Middle Eastern countries due to harassment and violence.
“As many Muslims and Jews will tell you, this is not good for the region,” he explained, noting that Christians are indigenous to the region.
“They contribute to the common good of their societies, and their presence enriches diversity and tolerance, and beyond tolerance, respect,” he said. “Their presence is good for all of the people of the Middle East.”
On the night of Sept. 11, an angry crowd stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
In the following days, violence has spread throughout the region. Much of the violence in the area appears to be in reaction to a low-budget video produced in the U.S. that mocks Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
However, according to the Associated Press, a senior Libyan official has said that militants in that country may have used the film as a cover for a planned terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate.
Unlike the other protests in the region, the crowd in Libya was heavily armed, reportedly using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to carry out the attack.
Protests have now been reported in some 20 countries. While some of these protests were primarily peaceful, others quickly turned violent in Middle Eastern nations including Yemen, Sudan, Tunis and Egypt.
According to Fox News, demonstrators in Lebanon chanted against Pope Benedict XVI’s 3-day Apostolic Visit to the country, which began Sept. 14. The pope has said that he is visiting the region as “a pilgrim of peace.”
Dr. Thomas Farr, who served as the first director of the U.S. State Department's office of international religious freedom, said that the problem underlying the violence is “the view, widely accepted among Muslims abroad, that anyone who offends Islam must be punished, either by the state or private actors.”
Violent extremism and the idea “that anyone offending Islam must be punished” are leading to increased attacks on religious minorities and threatening the security of America, he warned.
Farr, who directs the Religious Freedom Project at the Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, also spoke at the international religious freedom symposium on Sept. 12.
“No one should insult the sacred beliefs of another,” he said. “It is an assault on human dignity and respect for others.”
“But the malevolent idea that the proper response to defamation of religion is criminal prosecution, let alone violence or murder, is a dangerous problem in the Muslim-majority world,” he explained.
Farr stressed that is “in the vital interests of the United States" that these Middle Eastern nations "overcome violent religious extremism and achieve stable democracies and economic development.”
To achieve this, he said, the U.S. must more effectively support Muslims within these countries who understand the critical importance of religious freedom for their nation's future success and realize “that Islam can be defended without violence.”
Catholic leaders and scholars have denounced the violence that killed a U.S. ambassador and several other Americans in Libya, as well as ongoing clashes throughout the Middle East.
Middle East, Violence