The growing perception of religion as a threat to a free society is leading to persecution of believers around the world, according to speakers at a recent meeting of the U.S. bishops.
“Religious liberty is in global crisis,” said Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
He explained that the crisis has “enormous consequences for the Church, the United States, the fate of democracy worldwide, the defeat of religion-based terrorism and the cause of international peace and justice.”
Farr spoke June 13 to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as part of a two-hour discussion on both domestic and international religious freedom concerns.
His address came during the conference’s June 13-15 general assembly in Atlanta, Ga.
Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, noted that Christians around the world face threats ranging from Church bombing to discriminatory legal restrictions.
Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad, president of Caritas Iraq, also spoke at the bishops’ gathering, discussing the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
He offered accounts of priests being kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom, as well as churches being attacked and worshipers being killed.
There has also been a “huge diaspora” of Christian communities in the region, he added.
“Some wonder if there is a big plot to empty Iraq, if not to empty all of the Middle East, of Christians,” he told the American bishops.
Bishop Warduni said that leaders in U.S. “bear a special responsibility” towards Christians in Iraq because the United States led the 2003 invasion that caused some of these problems between the religious groups.
“We ask you to do your best” to raise awareness and support for Iraqi Christians, he urged, explaining that the people in the region simply want to live peacefully with “no more war, no more death” and “no more explosions.”
Farr cautioned the U.S. bishops that a negative view of religion is leading to a continued erosion of religious freedom around the world, with disastrous consequences.
“Both history and modern scholarship demonstrate that a robust system of religious liberty in both law and culture is indispensable to individual human dignity and to the flourishing of civil society and nations,” he said.
He pointed to a Pew Research study indicating that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in a country where religious freedom is seriously restricted.
And the problem “is getting worse,” he said, citing studies indicating that “social hostilities” towards religious minorities are rising in many areas, including much of Europe.
Although this does not match the level of violent persecution seen elsewhere, “the root cause is quite similar,” Farr explained. In such countries, the free exercise of religion is not only seen as unnecessary, but is even viewed as a threat to democratic society.
While this view has commonly been held by tyrants and authoritarian regimes throughout the ages, the alarming development is that it is now being held by democratic majorities, he said.
Religion today is commonly treated as “merely an opinion” and possibly “dangerous,” he alerted the bishops, pointing to Europe, where an “aggressive secularist majority” refuses to allow religiously informed opinions to enter the public square.
This view is also growing in the United States, he cautioned, as religious freedom is increasingly being depicted as the mere right to worship privately.
Farr argued that American policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations is failing to alleviate infringements upon religious freedom around the world.
He observed that the current U.S. State Department has devoted “far more energy” to supporting gay agendas overseas than to addressing religious liberty concerns.
The American bishops can make a great contribution in “strengthening our understanding of the value of religious freedom,” Farr said, explaining that Church teaching on “the fundamental dignity and equality of every person in the eyes of God” is powerful for society.
The Church is “uniquely positioned” to help proclaim the importance of religious liberty and must work immediately to do so, he urged, because “the stakes are high.”