Pope Benedict XVI has praised the work of the Knights of Columbus to defend and promote religious liberty within the United States.

In a letter signed by Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy Father commended the Knights' work to support religious liberty at a time "when concerted efforts are being made to redefine and restrict the exercise of the right to religious freedom."

The Knights of Columbus "have worked tirelessly to help the Catholic community recognize and respond to the unprecedented gravity of these new threats to the Church's liberty and public moral witness," the July 19 letter said.

In doing so, the organization "has proudly lived up to the high religious and patriotic principles which inspired its founding."

The letter applauded the Knights' work to defend "the right of all religious believers, as individual citizens and in their institutions, to work responsibly in shaping a democratic society inspired by their deepest beliefs, values and aspirations."

With more than 1.8 million members, the Knights of Columbus is the world's largest fraternal group and among the nation's most active charitable organizations. Last year, the Knights donated more than $158 million and 70 million hours to various charitable causes.

In recent months, the organization has been an outspoken opponent of measures that threaten religious freedom, most notably a federal mandate that requires employers to offer health insurance that includes contraception, sterilization and early abortion-inducing drugs even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

Each of the Knights' state councils passed a resolution supporting religious freedom, and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson has written and spoken out about the mandate as well as other threats to religious liberty.

The July 19 letter said that the Holy Father was "pleased" to learn that the Knights will be holding their 130th Supreme Convention in Anaheim, Calif. from Aug. 7-9.

It added that the theme of the gathering, "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land," calls to mind both "the great biblical ideas of freedom and justice" that shaped the nation's founding and "the responsibility of each new generation to preserve, defend and advance those great ideals in its own day."

Stressing the "urgent need" for a well-formed laity that is both engaged and articulate, the pope voiced confidence that the Knights will continue their legacy of "providing sound inspiration, guidance and direction to a new generation of faithful and dedicated Catholic laymen."

Pope Benedict urged the Supreme Council and each of the local councils to build up their "praiseworthy programs of continuing catechetical and spiritual formation which have long been a hallmark of your Order."

He offered prayers that the upcoming Year of Faith will reinforce the Knights' resolve to make their entire lives a witness to their baptismal faith.

The Holy Father also expressed gratitude for the spiritual bouquet of prayers and sacrifices offered by the Knights and their families for his thirty-fifth anniversary of episcopal ordination.

This "act of spiritual solidarity" was viewed by the pontiff as both an "outstanding testimony of love" and a sign of "fidelity, loyalty and support during these difficult times."

"We are honored by the pope's encouragement and confidence in our work," said Supreme Knight Anderson, adding that the pope's message "is clear."

"We must continue to stand up for our religious liberty and to point the way for our fellow Catholics to do the same," he said.

"Defense of religious liberty has long been a part of the Knights of Columbus history," Anderson noted, recalling the group's work to defend Catholic education from the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

He vowed that the Knights "will continue to do all we can" to oppose regulations that threaten to encroach on "the first freedom guaranteed in our bill of rights – the freedom to practice our religion."