Religious liberty — and the growing struggles of Christians and Church institutions worldwide — has emerged this year as one of Pope Benedict XVI’s most pressing concerns.
It’s a key agenda item in the Pope’s recent meetings with ambassadors and world leaders. And it has become a high-profile priority for Vatican diplomats. Just last month, in an address to a summit of European leaders, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone warned that Christians have become “the most discriminated and persecuted religious group” in the world.
The Pope echoes this language in a new document released at the Vatican Dec. 16.
“At present, Christians are the religious group that suffers most from persecution on account of its faith,” Pope Benedict writes in a message to mark to the annual World Day of Peace, which is celebrated Jan. 1.
“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.”
The new document is the Pope’s most thorough explanation to date of the importance of religious freedom as a basic human right and a building block for peace in the world. It also includes some of his most pointed criticisms of governments and extremists groups that deny this right.
“Sadly,” the Pope said, “the year now ending has again been marked by persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance.”
His message begins with a reference to the plight of Christians in what he called “the beloved country of Iraq.”
He calls the Oct. 31 murder of dozens of Iraqis while celebrating Mass at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad “reprehensible.”
Religious liberty, the Pope says, is “rooted in the very dignity of the human person. ” God, he said, created the human person to seek a truth that is “transcendent.” As such, governments or social groups can never deny people the freedom to seek the truth and to express and live by the truths they discover.
Religious freedom, the Pope insists, is more than the freedom to hold beliefs and to pray privately. Religious freedom also includes the individuals’ freedom to express their beliefs publicly and to establish institutions that reflect their beliefs.
Today, believers face persecution from atheist regimes on the one hand, and regimes run by religious extremists on the other.
The Pope condemned violence in the name of religion — and also the cowardice of governments that do not protect religious minorities from such violence.
“Fanaticism, fundamentalism and practices contrary to human dignity can never be justified, even less so in the name of religion,” the Pope said. “The profession of a religion cannot be exploited or imposed by force.”
Governments that tolerate “religious or antireligious fanaticism” fail their responsibilities to “protect and promote justice and the rights of all,” he said.
If religious freedom is not guaranteed, the Pope added, society risks “falling under the sway of idols” and “forms of political and ideological totalitarianism which emphasize public power while demeaning and restricting freedom of conscience, thought and religion as potential competitors.”
The Pope reserves some his most direct criticism for the way religious faith is increasingly mistreated and marginalized in the secularized nations of Europe and the West. There, “we see more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols,” he said.
He expresses hope that Western societies will end their “hostility and prejudice against Christians because they are resolved to orient their lives in a way consistent with the values and principles expressed in the Gospel.”
“It should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike,” the Pope stated.
Both reject a “legitimate pluralism” of viewpoints in society and both are based on “a reductive and partial vision of the human person,” that denies people’s religious needs.
“A society that would violently impose or, on the contrary, reject religion is not only unjust to individuals and to God, but also to itself,” the Pope said.
Societies that deny the “public role of religion … create a society which is unjust, inasmuch as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person,” the Pope emphasized.
Instead, Pope Benedict urged societies to recognize the “undeniable” contributions that religious believers and institutions make.
“Numerous charitable and cultural institutions testify to the constructive role played by believers in the life of society,” he said. “More important still is religion’s ethical contribution in the political sphere. Religion should not be marginalized or prohibited, but seen as making an effective contribution to the promotion of the common good.”
The Pope ends his message with a personal appeal to all “Christian communities suffering from persecution, discrimination, violence and intolerance, particularly in Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East and especially in the Holy Land, a place chosen and blessed by God.”
He exhorts them to “not lose heart” and to forgive those who persecute them.
“We ourselves lay down the condition and the extent of the mercy we ask for when we say: ‘And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us,’” the Pope urges. “Violence is not overcome by violence. May our cries of pain always be accompanied by faith, by hope and by the witness of our love of God.”