True religious freedom includes Christians in Europe and Middle East, expert says

Massimo Introvigne Photo Credit Tovo Giancarlo CNA World Catholic News 1 27 11 Dr. Massimo Introvigne. / Tovo Giancarlo

A true understanding of religious freedom which includes Christians in public life is the corrective for both the “subtle” discrimination facing European Christians and the open intolerance for Christianity elsewhere, an Italian religion expert said.

Dr. Massimo Introvigne, an official who combats racism and discrimination for the Vienna-based Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, discussed the situation of contemporary Christianity in an interview with Dr. Gudrun Kugler, director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe.

Citing Pope Benedict XVI, Introvigne said discrimination against Europe’s Christians is more “subtle” than elsewhere.

“Christians are excluded from public discourse, ridiculed, or marginalized. There are also legal decisions discriminating against Christians’ right to free speech in the workplace or in public positions,” he explained.

Introvigne noted the irony that one of the most important discussions of this situation came in the Pope’s prepared discourse for his January 2008 visit to La Sapienza University in Rome. The pontiff had planned to address the marginalization of Christians in Western public discourse, but the visit itself was canceled due to “the intolerant reaction of a small minority of professors and students.”

This incident confirmed that there is a problem of  intolerance against Christians in the West, Introvigne said.

The religion expert argued that opposition to such intolerance in Europe is not a distraction from more severe problems facing Christians in the Middle and Far East because both are rooted in a misunderstanding of religious liberty.

Some non-Western countries see the Western notion of religious liberty as a “disguise” for imposing relativism. Many of these countries reject religious liberty or try to substitute a narrower understanding which allows only “freedom of worship.”

“The same relativism is responsible for marginalizing and discriminating against Christians west of Vienna,” Introvigne explained. “As you may see, combating discrimination against Christians east and west of Vienna is based on the same philosophical rationale.”

Religious liberty, he explained, includes freedom to worship inside a church but also the freedom to preach outside it and to print books and to be active as believers in political life.

“And if as a result of the preaching somebody converts, the new convert should be left in peace rather than prosecuted for apostasy or blasphemy.”

Introvigne noted Pope Benedict’s criticism of the “illusion” that relativism provides the key to peaceful coexistence. In fact, this is the “origin of divisions” and “the denial of the dignity of human beings,” the pontiff said in his 2011 World Day of Peace message.

Turning to specific controversies, the Italian expert was critical of the effort to remove crucifixes from public schools in Italy. The most recent legal case, the subject of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, was brought by a single family who rejected their local school’s near-total consensus that crucifixes should be kept in classrooms.

“Minority rights are a very important part of our civil conversation. We should however not forget that majorities, too, have their rights,” he commented.

While a balance between the two should be found, he said that going against the feelings of a large majority for the sake of a “tiny minority” is not rational and does not lead to a true respect of minority rights.

“Majorities tend to respect minorities, as they of course should, when they think that their rights as a majority are in turn respected and not discriminated against,” Introvigne noted. “A climate where the rights of the majorities are systematically ignored is not a climate which is favorable to general tolerance and non-discrimination.”

He also noted the case of two owners of a small hotel in the U.K. who were forced to pay a fine to a homosexual couple because they limited their double rooms to married guests. Introvigne said such disputes should instead be treated with “common sense.”

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In extreme cases, he granted, perhaps there is a duty for someone to provide room for those believed to be sinning.

“In an average U.K. Town, on the other hand, probably there is a variety of accommodations, and there may be a peaceful coexistence between establishments which are ‘family-oriented,’ ‘gay friendly,’ and so on.”

Turning to the topic of freedom of artistic expression about religion, he noted that this is part of the Western heritage. Many minor and major artworks have been “remarkably free” in their negative depictions of the Church, as when Dante placed several bishops and Popes in his depiction of hell.

However, each country has its own traditions and there is a “fine line” between critical allegory, humor or satire and “insult and defamation.” Introvigne supported the prosecution of an “ultra-fundamentalist” Muslim preacher who had said “Jews are pigs.” While calling Judaism a false religion is protected by free speech, calling Jews or Christians “pigs” is a legal offense in Europe.

Discussing his other duties, the religion expert noted that his organization includes countries in central Asia and the Caucasus region where laws and regulations and religion are “comparatively new” and may need improvement. There are difficulties in registering religious bodies as legal entities or obtaining visas for missionaries.

Introvigne’s duties also include combating xenophobia and working with the Roma population.

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