Pope Benedict XVI has once more urged Muslim religious leaders and repressive governments to do more to protect the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in their countries.
The Pope used his annual address to diplomats Jan. 10, known as his “state of the world address,” to highlight the growing assault on religious freedoms around the world. His tough language underscored the urgency of the conditions facing Christians around the world.
He again condemned attacks in recent months on Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria.
“This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities,” the Pope said.
He decried the assassination of the governor of Punjab state in Pakistan and urged Pakistanis to “abrogate” a blasphemy law that has been used by Muslim extremists to intimidate and imprison Christians.
“The particular influence of a given religion in a nation ought never to mean that citizens of another religion can be subject to discrimination in social life or, even worse, that violence against them can be tolerated,” the Pope said.
Benedict XVI also offered words of encouragement to Catholics in China, who he said were facing “a time of difficulty and trial.”
He praised a recent effort by European Union leaders to defend the rights of Christians in the Middle East. He also welcomed a move last October by the Council of Europe to protect the rights of health care workers to “conscientious objection” against participating in abortions.
However, the Pope also had strong words for European governments and others in the West for their “marginalization of religion,” especially Christianity.
Despite their professed interest in “pluralism and tolerance,” the Pope said, in many countries in the West “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.”
“Christians are even required at times to act in the exercise of their profession with no reference to their religious and moral convictions, and even in opposition to them, as for example where laws are enforced limiting the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care or legal professionals,” Pope Benedict said.
In addition, the Pope criticized efforts to ban Christian holidays and symbols “under the guise” of showing respect for non-Christians and atheists. “By acting in this way, not only is the right of believers to the public expression of their faith restricted, but an attack is made on the cultural roots which nourish the profound identity and social cohesion of many nations.”
The Pope also took aim at efforts in Latin American countries to limit Church-run schools.
The Church and religious believers must have the freedom to make decisions about how best to educate their young, he said.
He added: “I cannot remain silent about another attack on the religious freedom of families in certain European countries which mandate obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education which allegedly convey a neutral conception of the person and of life, yet in fact reflect an anthropology opposed to faith and to right reason.”
The Pope's address was delivered to a group of diplomats representing the 178 nations that maintain relations with the Holy See in the picturesque Sala Regia at the Vatican.
In his lengthy discourse he said that it is time for world leaders to recognize that religion is a fundamental part of human nature.
"The religious dimension is an undeniable and irrepressible feature of man’s being and acting, the measure of the fulfillment of his destiny and of the building up of the community to which he belongs," the Pope explained.
Religious freedom is "the first of human rights," because it is about man's relation with his Creator, he said.
Freedom of worship, he reminded diplomats, is not full religious freedom. Believers must be able to practice their faith in all aspects of their life in society. Religious institutions, too, must be free to operate in society.
He pointed to a kind of double standard that exists in the way the world regards religious freedom.
“One cannot create a sort of scale of degrees of religious intolerance,” he said. “Unfortunately, such an attitude is frequently found, and it is precisely acts of discrimination against Christians which are considered less grave and less worthy of attention on the part of governments and public opinion.”
He urged the diplomats to remember that religion is a force for peace and development in their countries. He pointed to the example of the late Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcuta, whose 100th birthday was celebrated in many countries last year.
“People like her show the world the extent to which the commitment born of faith is beneficial to society as a whole,” Pope Benedict said.