Vatican archbishop expresses ‘grave concern’ at rise in attacks on believers at prayer

CNA 59f358745af38 137497 Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See's Secretariat of State, at the Vatican Oct. 27, 2017. | Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

A Vatican archbishop expressed "grave concern" Thursday at the rise in attacks on believers praying in places of worship.

In a Dec. 3 address to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher said that "the Holy See wishes to express its grave concern for the rising number of terrorist attacks, hate crimes and other manifestations of intolerance targeting persons, places of worship, cemeteries and religious sites across the OSCE area and beyond." 

"The fact that many of these acts of violence have been perpetrated against believers when they gather to pray in their places of worship make them particularly heinous: havens of peace and serenity quickly become execution chambers, as defenseless children, women and men lose their lives simply for gathering to practice their religion," he said. 

Gallagher, the Vatican's Secretary for Relations with States, made the comments at a virtual meeting of the OSCE held in the Albanian capital, Tirana.

The OSCE, which has 57 participating states in North America, Europe and Central Asia, describes itself as the world's largest regional security organization. 

The organization published data last month documenting more than 500 hate crimes against Christians in Europe in 2019.

Incidents included attacks against Catholic priests, arson attacks on Catholic churches, the destruction of images of the Virgin Mary, vandalism of a pregnancy counseling center, and the theft of consecrated Eucharistic hosts from tabernacles.

Gallagher said that the OSCE could be "rightly proud of being one of the first international organizations to raise the alarm on intolerance and discrimination against Christians."

The archbishop was speaking weeks after a Tunisian man stabbed three people to death at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in France. Witnesses said that he shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) throughout the attack.

Gallagher said: "It is even more regrettable that some of these abhorrent attacks are committed 'in the name of religion.' Let me emphasize that violence does not stem from religion but from its false interpretation or its transformation into ideology." 

"Violence, persecution and killing in the name of God is not religion but radicalism, which needs to be fought by all using all legitimate means."

Gallagher argued that the commitment to defending freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief should lead to the protection of places of worship. The OSCE's participating states therefore had a "common duty" to defend communities from attacks.

"For the OSCE to promote human dignity in an integral way, it must effectively address intolerance and discrimination against Christians, Jews, Muslims and members of other religions without prejudice or hierarchical selectivity, thus addressing hate crimes and security needs of all religious communities," he said.

In his wide-ranging address, Gallagher also reflected on the pandemic. He lamented the surge in poverty caused by the coronavirus and its "disproportionate effect" on women.

He added: "Some of the measures imposed by states to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have had profound ramifications on different fundamental freedoms, including the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief, while also limiting the religious, educational and charitable activities of faith communities." 

"In this respect, civil authorities should always be aware of the severe consequences those regulations might create for religious or belief communities, which play an important role in dealing with the crisis not only by their active support in the field of healthcare and social assistance, but also by their spiritual and moral help and their messages of solidarity and hope."

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