CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Threats to religious freedom in the 21st century

A paper presented by Dr Massimo Introvigne, OSCE Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance against Christians and Members of Other Religions at the joint Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEC) and Conference of European Churches (CEC) meeting, Beograd, February 18, 2011


From the Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace to the announcement of a new inter-religious meeting at Assisi, Benedict XVI has repeatedly indicated his intention to make 2011 an international year for religious freedom. A detailed list of the issues raised was given in the annual address to the Diplomatic Corps on 10 January 2011.
Since 5 January 2011, I have taken on the role of Personal Representative of OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination and intolerance against Christians and members of other religions. In this capacity, I am very grateful to the Pope for having pointed out a definite agenda to international organisations, too, including OSCE, described in the recent annual report on religious freedom from Aid to the Church in Need as the most important organisation in the world, in terms of human rights, after the United Nations. Within the limits of my own abilities and opportunities, I am trying to make this my own agenda, an agenda which naturally is not aimed only at Catholics and not even just Christians but – on the basis of the universal rights of the human person – is addressed to all people of goodwill. 
In his address the Pope highlighted five risks to religious freedom. The first concerns a possible confusion about what precisely is religious freedom. Often, religious freedom has been confused with relativism, that is, with the idea that a religious truth does not exist and the choice of one religion or another is more or less indifferent. On the other hand, as Benedict XVI recalled in the Encyclical Caritas in veritate: “Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism, nor does it imply that all religions are equal” (n. 55). 
But what is religious freedom? Here it is appropriate to re-read Benedict XVI’s Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, which offers some very important ideas. Interpreting the Second Vatican Council Declaration Dignitatis humanae, Benedict XVI himself has explained on a number of occasions that from the legal point of view it is not about a positive right – which should also include a “right to error” which, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in no. 2108, the Church has never recognised – but a negative right, which this Message, too, calls “immunity from coercion”. This immunity certainly acquires a specific profile in modern States, by definition unqualified in matters of religion, but corresponds to the ancient principle according to which, as the Message declares, “the profession of a religion cannot be [...] imposed by force”. If one can speak of a “right”, in the legal sense, it is the right not to be disturbed by a modern State’s intrusion in the formation of one’s own convictions in religious matters.
With respect to previous interventions, however, there is in the Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace a second element, certainly not new but whose inseparable link to the first element is strongly confirmed. The religious freedom which the Church proclaims “should be understood, then, not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth”. From a philosophical point of view, an analysis of what is the human person comes “before” legal solutions. The person is ordained to truth and blessed with freedom for truth. Of course, free will allows for the evil use of freedom, against truth and even against God. But in this case, explains Benedict XVI, freedom erodes its very own foundation. “A freedom which is hostile or indifferent to God becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others. A will which believes itself radically incapable of seeking truth and goodness has no objective reasons or motives for acting save those imposed by its fleeting and contingent interests; it does not have an “identity” to safeguard and build up through truly free and conscious decisions. As a result, it cannot demand respect from other “wills”, which are themselves detached from their own deepest being and thus capable of imposing other “reasons” or, for that matter, no “reason” at all. The illusion that moral relativism provides the key for peaceful coexistence is actually the origin of divisions and the denial of the dignity of human beings”.
Another misunderstanding, a result, according to the Pope, of an erroneous reading of religious freedom and Dignitatis humanae, is one which would like to confine religion to a merely private dimension, so when the Church calls for laws in conformity with the natural truths which are part of her usual teaching – especially in areas, specifically mentioned in the Message, of life, the family and freedom of education (Benedict XVI’s famous “non-negotiable values”) – it is said to be denying the religious freedom of non-Catholcis through unjust interference in political life. It is not just the principles of natural morality which are important for everyone, believer and non-believer alike. But, it is also in the “respect for the positive secularity of state institutions” that the inclination of freedom to truth cannot be renounced from a political dimension.
“The public dimension of religion must always be acknowledged” and “the laws and institutions of a society cannot be shaped in such a way as to ignore the religious dimension of its citizens or to prescind completely from it”. “Since [the religious dimension of the person] is not a creation of the state, it cannot be manipulated by the state, but must rather be acknowledged and respected by it”. All this is summed up in a very strong statement about the role of society for the salvation of souls, which recalls similar and famous expressions of Venerable Pius XII: “Society too, as an expression of the person and of all his or her constitutive dimensions, must live and organize itself in a way that favours openness to transcendence”.
This re-construction of the real notion of religious freedom therefore excludes above all “the path of relativism, or religious syncretism” – which are different, the Pope explains, from the dialogue between religions in clarity and truth – and means the two opposed errors of fundamentalism and secularism, also often mentioned in Benedict XVI’s Message, can be avoided. “It should be clear”, the Pope writes now, “that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike”. Both in fact deny the correct relationship between faith and reason. In fundamentalism, faith denies reason. In secularism, reason, or rather rationalism, denies faith. Both are enemies of religious freedom: fundamentalism wants to impose religion by force, secularism by force wants to impose irreligion. But only the balance between faith and reason – without confusion, but also without separation – guarantees religious freedom which, the Pope assures us, “is at the origin of moral freedom” and therefore every true freedom.
Is it therefore just a theoretical question? Certainly not. In fact, the fear that religious freedom bears with it a relativism and an underestimation of the role of religions typical in the modern West is the primary reason why countries with a strong Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist religious identity resist the application of international conventions in the area of religious freedom. They are afraid that accepting religious freedom necessarily means ceding to the relativism and indifferentism characteristic of a certain modern Western culture. They must be convinced that this is not the case, and that religious freedom and the denunciation of what the Pope calls the dictatorship of relativisim can and must exist side-by-side, as in fact the Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace illustrates.
The second risk identified in the Pope’s address on 10 January 2011, to which I now return as an “index” of the current issues in terms of religious freedom, is that of the attempt by Islamic ultra-fundamentalism, which should not, of course, be confused with Islam in general, to bring an end to the bi-millennial existence of Christian communities in the Near East, resorting even to terrorism. In some countries the attempt at ethnic cleansing which definitively eliminates Christians is by now all too clear. It is true that governments distance themselves from the ultra-fundamentalists. But the time of words not followed up by actions has gone. There is a need, the Pope states, to adopt “effective measures for the protection of religious minorities”. 
Nor is it a problem just of police, whose action in countries such as Egypt is however very important and must make a qualitative leap, despite the recent difficulties, if non-artificial results are to be achieved. It is also a matter of laws, which in many countries where there is an Islamic majority reduce religious freedom simply to religious worship. Christians – not everywhere – can freely celebrate their Rites enclosed in churches, but they cannot go out of the church or the sacristy to proclaim the Gospel. Then if someone converts from Islam to Christianity, he or she is punished by laws against apostasy and – where these laws have been revoked following Western pressue – by norms against blasphemy, which are often just disguised laws against conversion. The Pope states that “the right to religious freedom is not fully respected when only freedom of worship is guaranteed, and that with restrictions”. More explicitly, he also states: “Among the norms prejudicing the right of persons to religious freedom, particular mention must be made of the law against blasphemy in Pakistan: I once more encourage the leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate that law, all the more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities”.
The third risk – often little known or under-estimated – is constituted by aggression against Christians by Hindu or Buddhist “fundamentalists”, who identify the national identity of their countries with religious identity, sometimes defended violently against Christianity. These are what the Pope calls “troubling situations, at times accompanied by acts of violence […] in south and south-east Asia, in countries which for that matter have a tradition of peaceful social relations. The particular influence of a given religion in a nation ought never to mean that citizens of another religion can be subject to discrimination in social life or, even worse, that violence against them can be tolerated”. 
The fourth risk is constituted by the fact that, even if many peope would like to forget it, there are still Communist regimes in the strictest and toughest sense of the word. “In a number of countries”, the Pope states clearly alluding to these regimes, “a constitutionally recognized right to religious freedom exists, yet the life of religious communities is in fact made difficult and at times even dangerous (cf. Dignitatis Humanae 15) because the legal or social order is inspired by philosophical and political systems which call for strict control, if not a monopoly, of the state over society”. The Pope’s thoughts, there, “turn once again to the Catholic community of mainland China and its pastors, who are experiencing a time of difficulty and trial”. Nor is this the only case, if we just think for example of the largely forgotten drama of the Christians in North Korea, a country which every year wins the “Gold Medal” from the Protestant Open Doors organisation as absolutely the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.
The fifth risk is represented by what the Pope in his address to the Roman Curia on 20 December 2010, making his own an expression coined by the well-known American Jewish jurist of South African origin, Joseph Weiler, had called the West’s “Christianophobia”. “Turning our gaze from East to West”, the Pope said, “we find ourselves faced with other kinds of threats to the full exercise of religious freedom. I think in the first place of countries which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance, but where religion is increasingly being marginalized. There is a tendency to consider religion, all religion, as something insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to modern society, and to attempt by different means to prevent it from having any influence on the life of society”.
“Christians are even required at times to act in the exercise of their profession with no reference to their religious and moral convictions, and even in opposition to them, as for example where laws are enforced limiting the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care or legal professionals”, especially in regard to “abortion”.
“Another sign of the marginalization of religion, and of Christianity in particular”, the Pope added, “is the banning of religious feasts and symbols from civic life under the guise of respect for the members of other religions or those who are not believers. By acting in this way, not only is the right of believers to the public expression of their faith restricted, but an attack is made on the cultural roots which nourish the profound identity and social cohesion of many nations”. Here, too, the Pope did not limit himself to general principles, but made a particular reference to the Lautsi ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which would aim at banning the placing of the crucifix in Italian schools, praising those who fought to remove the menacing and unjust effects of that ruling. “Last year”, Benedict XVI said, “a number of European countries supported the appeal lodged by the Italian government in the well-known case involving the display of the crucifix in public places. I am grateful to the authorities of those nations, as well as to all those who became involved in the issue”.
“Christianophobia” is also seen in the threats to freedom of education and in administrative antipathy towards Christian schools. Nor, the Pope said, can “I remain silent about another attack on the religious freedom of families in certain European countries which mandate obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education which allegedly convey a neutral conception of the person and of life, yet in fact reflect an anthropology opposed to faith and to right reason”.
The fact that OSCE has established the office of a Representative for combating discrimination against Christians represents an achievement for the diplomacy of the Holy See and those governments which cleverly supported it. Naturally there are no lack of difficulties and opposition, and in times of economic crisis the resources of the international organisation are severely limited.
As regards concrete action for freedom for Christians, the work of my office at OSCE is carried out through diplomatic activity with participating States and country visits, sometimes carried out along with two other Representatives, respectively for combating anti-semitism and Islamophobia. However, this work is limited institutionally to the OSCE participating States.
On the level of raising awareness about discrimination against Christians we can do more. We are organising an OSCE roundtable in Rome on 4 May on the theme “Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians”. I have also suggested to the States that wish to participate the celebration of a Day of Christian Martyrs of our time, to be celebrated not – or not only – in churches, where there are already similar initiatives in place, but in schools, cities, and public institutions because the persecution of Christians does not affect just Christians, but everyone. I suggested the date of 7 May recalling the great ecumenical event which the Venerable John Paul II celebrated at the Colosseum on 7 May 2000, with eight “stations” recalling the main groups of Christian martyrs of our time: the victims of Soviet totalitarianism, of Communism in other countries, of Nazisim, of the conflicts between religions, of the violent religious nationalisms in Asia, of tribal and anti-missionary hatred, of aggressive secularism and of organised crime. This day could be an annual opportunity for a collective examination of conscience and for an exacting approach from Europe to the problem of the protection of Christian minorities in various countries. It is always worth re-reading the appeal made by John Paul II on 7 May 2000 at the Colosseum at the start of the 21st century which was then just beginning: “In the century and the millennium just begun may the memory of these brothers and sisters of ours remain always vivid. Indeed, may it grow still stronger! Let it be passed on from generation to generation, so that from it there may blossom a profound Christian renewal”. The establishment of a Day of Christian Martyrs of our time would be a wonderful response to this appeal which today is more real than ever.