.- American Catholics must defend authentic religious freedom around the world to prevent the threat of religious persecution at home, said the head Vatican representative to the United Nations.
“What is at stake here is the future of humanity itself,” underscored Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, who serves as the Holy See’s permanent observer to the U.N.
The archbishop delivered the keynote address at the eighth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
The April 19 event drew a crowd of roughly 1000, including former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and bipartisan members of Congress.
In his address, Archbishop Chullikatt spoke of his time as apostolic nuncio to Iraq, where he saw what it meant to risk death for living out the Christian faith.
“I have seen the horrors of sectarian violence,” he said, explaining that people he knew were arrested, tortured and even killed, suffering martyrdom for their faith.
“These are not abstract issues. These are not mere statistics,” he said. “They were and are my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors.”
The archbishop explained that this experience is “etched deeply” in his memory and inspires him to speak out on behalf of all those who are persecuted for living their faith.
“These martyrs of faith must not be forgotten,” he said.
The past century has shown what happens when religious freedom is stifled and God is set aside, he cautioned.
“Faith in God and respect for religious freedom go hand in hand,” he said. “The one who respects the existence of God will always and everywhere respect also religious freedom.”
Archbishop Chullikatt said that the human person has a fundamental and “sacred” right to seek, profess and share the truth.
He emphasized that “authentic religious liberty is more than just freedom of worship.” It must also include, among other things, “the right to preach, educate, evangelize and participate in the political process, as well as in public life.”
Noting the irreplaceable role of religion in society, he added that religious freedom is not only a moral issue, but also “a non-negotiable civil right, given by the Creator and not by the state.”
He explained that government “transgresses the limits of its authority” when it fails to respect the God-given right to religious freedom by coercing people to violate their religious beliefs or prohibiting them from participating in public life.
Although religious freedom is formally recognized as a civil right in most constitutions and national documents, there are many areas of the world where it is not fully respected, the archbishop said.
He voiced concern over increasing intolerance towards religion in many parts of the world today, often directed at Christians.
In the West, religion is treated as a destabilizing threat to modern society, he added.
Despite its strong Christian history, believers in much of Europe find themselves marginalized, impeded and discriminated against, as secular forces attempt to remove the voice of religion from society, he explained.
Archbishop Chullikatt warned that although the West has not yet reached a level of violent persecution and oppression, “it is from this marginalization and denial of religious freedom” that such violence is born.
Constant vigilance is necessary, he said, stressing that Americans cannot assume that liberty will always be secure at home and atrocities can only happen in other countries.
Catholic bishops across America have warned that a domestic erosion of religious liberty has already begun, manifest in part by a federal health insurance mandate that will require religious individuals and institutions to violate Church teaching by offering contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
The archbishop urged Catholics to speak up for the religious freedom of their spiritual brothers and sisters around the world.
He explained that “by defending their rights, we shall be defending our own rights.”