.- Religious liberty â and the growing struggles of Christians and Church institutions worldwide â has emerged this year as one of Pope Benedict XVIâs most pressing concerns.
Itâs a key agenda item in the Popeâs 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 âthe most discriminated and persecuted religious groupâ in the world.
The Pope echoes this language in a new document released at the Vatican Dec. 16.
âAt present, Christians are the religious group that suffers most from persecution on account of its faith,â Pope Benedict writes in a message to mark to the annual World Day of Peace, which is celebrated Jan. 1.
âMany 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.â
The new document is the Popeâs 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.
âSadly,â the Pope said, âthe year now ending has again been marked by persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance.â
His message begins with a reference to the plight of Christians in what he called âthe beloved country of Iraq.â
He calls the Oct. 31 murder of dozens of Iraqis while celebrating Mass at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad âreprehensible.â
Religious liberty, the Pope says, is ârooted in the very dignity of the human person. â God, he said, created the human person to seek a truth that is âtranscendent.â 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 individualsâ 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 â and also the cowardice of governments that do not protect religious minorities from such violence.
âFanaticism, fundamentalism and practices contrary to human dignity can never be justified, even less so in the name of religion,â the Pope said. âThe profession of a religion cannot be exploited or imposed by force.â
Governments that tolerate âreligious or antireligious fanaticismâ fail their responsibilities to âprotect and promote justice and the rights of all,â he said.
If religious freedom is not guaranteed, the Pope added, society risks âfalling under the sway of idolsâ and âforms of political and ideological totalitarianism which emphasize public power while demeaning and restricting freedom of conscience, thought and religion as potential competitors.â
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, âwe see more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols,â he said.
He expresses hope that Western societies will end their âhostility 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.â
âIt should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike,â the Pope stated.
Both reject a âlegitimate pluralismâ of viewpoints in society and both are based on âa reductive and partial vision of the human person,â that denies peopleâs religious needs.
âA society that would violently impose or, on the contrary, reject religion is not only unjust to individuals and to God, but also to itself,â the Pope said.
Societies that deny the âpublic role of religion â¦ create a society which is unjust, inasmuch as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person,â the Pope emphasized.
Instead, Pope Benedict urged societies to recognize the âundeniableâ contributions that religious believers and institutions make.
âNumerous charitable and cultural institutions testify to the constructive role played by believers in the life of society,â he said. âMore important still is religionâs 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.â
The Pope ends his message with a personal appeal to all âChristian 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.â
He exhorts them to ânot lose heartâ and to forgive those who persecute them.
âWe ourselves lay down the condition and the extent of the mercy we ask for when we say: âAnd forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us,ââ the Pope urges. âViolence 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.â