Pope Benedict XVI stressed the plight of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in his annual address to Vatican-accredited diplomats on Jan. 9.
“In many countries Christians are deprived of fundamental rights and sidelined from public life; in other countries they endure violent attacks against their churches and their homes,” the Pope reminded the 179 diplomats accredited to the Holy See from around the world, who were gathered at the Apostolic Palace.
In his speech, Pope Benedict paid tribute to the slain Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic “whose untiring battle for the rights of minorities ended in his tragic death” in March 2011. But in bringing up Bhatti's murder, the Pope said he was “not speaking of an isolated case.”
“In the past year religiously motivated terrorism has also reaped numerous victims, especially in Asia and in Africa,” he recalled, before stating that religion “cannot be employed as a pretext for setting aside the rules of justice and of law for the sake of the intended 'good.'”
But the Pope also warned against secularist policies “aimed at marginalizing the role of religion in the life of society, as if it were a cause of intolerance” rather than a source of “human dignity, justice and peace.”
Last year showed some encouraging signs of religious freedom, according to Pope Benedict, who pointed to Georgia's legal recognition of minority religious groups and the European Court of Human Rights' reversal of a ban on crucifixes in Italian public schools as examples.
Italy, he said, should “continue to foster a stable relationship between Church and state, and thus serve as an example to which other nations can look with respect and interest.”
In Africa, meanwhile, the Pope stressed the need for justice and reconciliation between Christian groups, governments, and various ethnic groups. He said it was “painful to realize that in different countries of the continent this goal remains distant.”
Among his foremost African concerns is Nigeria's recent church bombings, along with the famine in the Horn of Africa and the aftermath of the civil war in Ivory Coast. He also renewed an appeal for nations “to make every effort to find a solution to the crisis which has gone on for years in Somalia.”
Throughout the world, the Pope has observed a “profound disquiet” in events like the Arab Spring revolutions, the European financial crisis, and Japan's Fukushima nuclear meltdown. His remarks to the assembled diplomats drew a link between this darkness and the modern world's loss of God.
“Truly the world is dark wherever men and women no longer acknowledge their bond with the creator, and thereby endanger their relation to other creatures and to creation itself,” he observed.
In the midst of global uncertainty, Pope Benedict said the Church stands ready, “inspired by the certainty of faith,” to proclaim “the lofty grandeur of our human calling … and to offer humanity sincere cooperation in building a sense of universal fraternity corresponding to this calling.”
Australian Ambassador Timothy Fischer was among the members of the Diplomatic Corps who attended Monday's address. He told Vatican Radio it was a “very sober message from the Pope,” starting off the year in “a very sobering world.”
One hopeful sign mentioned by the Pope was the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian discussions under a Jordanian initiative. Mordechay Lewy, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, told Vatican Radio he was pleased that “the Holy Father saw the light in the window” and “encouraged the lights to be stronger.”
Palestine’s representative to the Vatican Chawki Armali also welcomed the Pope’s statement but also lamented the obstacles he sees standing in the way of peace, such as the ongoing construction of settlements by the Israelis.