Archbishop cautions against anti-defamation laws in U.N. speech

Archbishop Celestino Migliore
Archbishop Celestino Migliore


Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the apostolic nuncio leading the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations, spoke at the U.N. on Wednesday about religious freedom, lamenting that the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion continue to be violated. However, the archbishop cautioned against laws prohibiting the defamation of religions, which he said can be used to penalize religious minorities and to stifle legitimate dialogue.

Citing the Special Rapporteur’s report on religious freedom, the archbishop noted that members of all religions are being persecuted in many parts of the globe. He also called recent armed attacks against Christians in Iraq and India a “cause of grave concern.”

Such attacks indicate “the dramatic consequences of the violation of this fundamental right, whose bearers are individual believers and religious groups instead of territorial and cultural areas.”

The attacks also draw attention to the need for a “timely and concerted effort” for all governments and their branches to ensure that the “fundamental right to religious freedom” is “defended and promoted.”

Religious Freedom in a Globalized World

Globalization, the archbishop remarked, which is characterized by “unprecedented human mobility and cultural exchanges,” results in more exposure to diversity of thought and religious beliefs.

“Respecting and promoting the right to religious freedom means keeping in mind that such freedom belongs to people and religious communities and cannot be coerced, limited or trampled upon on the basis of geography or cultures and traditions.

“Furthermore, individuals must be able not only to practice their faith but also to change or uphold it without fear of coercion, intimidation or violence,” the archbishop said, calling it an “unequivocal principle” for governments and civil society to endorse.

Such a principle also must inform public and private education systems, social organizations and religious communities. All such groups must “adopt this conviction and act accordingly, if we want to ensure peaceful coexistence and cooperation in a globalized world.”

Archbishop Migliore noted that the U.N. committee has seen an increased focus on protecting religions from “statements or actions which are perceived to defame religious symbols and institutions.”

“The concept of defamation of religions arises from the belief that certain religious ideas and figures deserve protection by the State in order to ensure that the sensibilities of religious adherents are not offended,” the archbishop explained. “In a multicultural and interconnected society appropriate measures must be taken to guarantee respect for the various faith traditions.”

Religious Protections can be Misused

“However,” he continued, “in the current international context the notion of defamation of religions risks removing the focus from a basic right of individuals and groups to the protection of institutions, symbols and ideas. Furthermore, it can lend itself locally to support laws which penalize religious minorities and stifle legitimate dialogue among persons of different faiths and cultures.”

Emphasizing that the Holy See delegation is “wholly supportive” of protecting believers from hate speech and acts against their convictions, he added:

“We think that such protection can best be achieved by effectively implementing the right of individuals and communities to religious freedom as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil, Cultural and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.”

Archbishop Migliore closed by stating that the U.N.’s primary responsibility regarding religion is to debate and elucidate and to help states “fully ensure” the implementation of the right to religious freedom affirmed by U.N. documents.

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