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Religious Freedom: The Path to Peace Print E-mail

January 5, 2011| The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 36  | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

This past weekend 21 Coptic Christians were killed and over 70 injured as they gathered to celebrate midnight Mass in Alexandria, one of the four original patriarchates of the Church (see related story). Last year saw violence at Our Lady of Deliverance Cathedral in Baghdad. Twice the Holy See has had publicly to denounce the persecution of Catholics in China by the government and its minions. In Venezuela, a president turned leftist dictator constantly threatens and harasses the Catholic Church. Protestant missionaries are at risk in various countries of Asia. India is on the “watch list” of countries where violence against Christians has become sporadic but too frequent. The list goes on and on.

Small wonder that Pope Benedict XVI stated so correctly and unequivocally in this year’s Message for the World Day of Peace, “At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith.” Last Sunday at the Angelus, the Holy Father called the massacre of Coptic Christians a “vile act” and yet concluded, “I encourage all Christian communities to remain constant in the faith and in the witness of non-violence that comes to us from the Gospel.”

Religious freedom is the focus of this year’s Message of Peace from the pope to the world, the 44th of these annual messages which began with the prescient insight of the Servant of God, Paul VI in 1967. While this has been a theme in previous messages, its current importance and the necessity of attending to its meaning have become ever more evident both in countries where persecution is overt and in countries where other more subtle forms of religious intolerance have been growing steadily in recent years. When the Holy Father speaks as he does, he excludes no genuine religious group and includes every man and woman of faith in his vision and in his pastoral concern.

It is impossible to understand the human person in all his/her worth and dignity apart from the transcendent vocation of every human being. There is an openness to what is greater than ourselves that yearns to find its goal and to express its relationship that lies at the heart of human flourishing. To deny this by force or fear, by pressure or persecution, by ridicule or insult is an act against human dignity. Sadly all these are too common in our world today. And all of these, as the pope says, “stifle the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the whole human family.”

In his lucid presentation which can be found on the Vatican website,, the pope underscores the religious and social dimension of the human person. This exists in the basic cell of every society, the family, and it is the one human right that guarantees all other human rights. The Holy Father calls religious freedom “an essential good.” In so doing he echoes the words of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which has been accepted by all civilized countries, even those who ignore it.

While there are many expressions of denial or infringement on religious freedom throughout the world, there are two “kinds” of interference to the exercise of religious freedom today. There is the overt denial of religious freedom by the state which then tolerates or even encourages acts of violence against believers. While there has been — and rightly so — a mosque atop a hill overlooking Rome since the 1970s, there is yet to be a recognized Christian Church in Saudi Arabia. Yet the point is not a “quid pro quo.” The point is a recognition of a right inherent in every human person to profess a faith and to live it privately and publicly, alone or in groups, acts which not only honor the God in whom one has placed one’s faith but contribute as well to peace and harmony and the common good.

The Holy Father clearly rejects any and all acts of fanaticism or fundamentalism that contradict the truth or lead to violence against others, especially those done in the name of religion. But he does insist that religious freedom must be respected by all. It cannot be infringed by the state. “Since it is not a creation of the state, it cannot be manipulated by the state, but must rather be acknowledged and respected by it.” In parts of Asia and Africa, “the chief victims are the members of religious minorities, who are prevented from freely professing or changing their religion by forms of intimidation and the violation of their rights ….”

Lest we in the West begin to think that religious freedom is at risk only in countries far from our borders, the Holy Father offers some sobering remarks for our reflection. More sophisticated forms of hostility to religion in Western countries “occasionally find expression in a denial of history and a rejection of religious symbols which reflect the identity and the culture of the majority of citizens.” The Holy Father calls for “an end to hostility and prejudice against Christians (in the West) because they (Christians) are resolved to orient their lives in a way consistent with the values and principles expressed in the Gospel.”

Pope Benedict concludes, “The world needs God. It needs universal, shared ethical and spiritual values and religion can offer a precious contribution to their pursuit, for the building of a just and peaceful social order at the national and international levels.” Echoing Pope Paul VI, the Holy Father adds that peace needs “moral weapons” and “religious freedom is an authentic weapon of peace … it is the path to peace.”

P.S. Those who participated at daily Mass this past Monday, January 3, experienced one of the many gifts of the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal which we will be using beginning the First Sunday of Advent this year. One of the many new “feasts” of the calendar is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus which, with the new Missal, we will observe on January 3 annually. “Praised be Jesus Christ, Now and Forever.”

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