Oppose religious persecution in all forms

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There are two basic forms of religious persecution. The first is more subtle and moves by almost imperceptible degrees in an effort to restrict and prohibit people of faith from running charitable outreaches and schools or conducting their business in a manner that reflects and respects their deeply held religious beliefs.

On the other far end of the spectrum is a form of religious persecution that would exterminate and destroy expressions of religious faith and even the adherents. We see this gross violation of human freedom now playing out in Iraq and in Northern Africa, but it is also seen in Communist China and other regions, both now and in the past, where religious freedom has been prohibited.

Pope Francis just recently addressed the need to defend a robust and active religious freedom in society, both freedom to practice one’s faith but also to act on one’s religious conscience in providing services and charities that are inspired by and reflect one’s faith.

The following text is excerpted from a Zenit News Agency translation of the pope’s Sept. 21 address during a meeting with interreligious leaders in Albania. The message is apt for both the religious freedom struggles in a modern Western society like the United States and for the brutal persecution being unleashed in the Middle East. Here are some excerpts from the pope’s talk:

When, in the name of an ideology, there is an attempt to remove God from society, it ends up adoring idols, and very soon men and women lose their way, their dignity is trampled and their rights violated. You know well how much pain comes from the denial of freedom of conscience and of religious freedom, and how from such a wound comes a humanity that is impoverished because it lacks hope and ideals to guide it…

In reality, as John Paul II stated during his historic visit to Albania in 1993, “Religious freedom…is not only a precious gift from the Lord for those who have faith: it is a gift for each person, because it is the basic guarantee of every other expression of freedom…Only faith reminds us that, if we have one Creator, we are therefore all brothers and sisters. Religious freedom is a safeguard against all forms of totalitarianism and contributes decisively to human fraternity.”

He immediately then added, “True religious freedom shuns the temptation to intolerance and sectarianism, and promotes attitudes of respect and constructive dialogue.”

We cannot deny that intolerance towards those with different religious convictions is a particularly insidious enemy, one which today is being witnessed in various areas around the world. As believers we must be particularly vigilant so that, in living out with conviction our religious and ethical code, we may always express the mystery we intend to honor. This means that all those forms which present a distorted use of religion, must be firmly refuted as false since they are unworthy of God or humanity. Authentic religion is a source of peace and not of violence! No one must use the name of God to commit violence! To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.

Seen in this light, religious freedom is not a right which can be guaranteed solely by existing legislation, although laws are necessary. Rather religious freedom is a shared space, an atmosphere of respect and cooperation that must be built with everyone’s participation, even those who have no religious convictions.

Allow me to outline two attitudes which can be especially helpful in the advancement of this fundamental freedom.

The first attitude is that of regarding every man and woman, even those of different religious traditions, not as rivals, less still enemies, but rather as brothers and sisters. When a person is secure of his or her own beliefs, there is no need to impose or put pressure on others: there is a conviction that truth has its own power of attraction. Deep down, we are all pilgrims on this earth, and on this pilgrim journey, as we yearn for truth and eternity, we do not live autonomous and self-sufficient individual lives; the same applies to religious, cultural and national communities. We need each other, and are entrusted to each other’s care. Each religious tradition, from within, must be able to take account of others.

The second attitude which fosters the promotion of religious freedom is the work done in service of the common good. Whenever adherence to a specific religious tradition gives birth to service that shows conviction, generosity and concern for the whole of society without making distinctions, then there too exists an authentic and mature living out of religious freedom. This presents itself not only as a space in which to legitimately defend one’s autonomy, but also as a potential that enriches the human family as it advances. The more men and women are at the service of others, the greater their freedom!

Let us look around us: there are so many poor and needy people, so many societies that try to find a more inclusive way of social justice and path of economic development! How great is the need for the human heart to be firmly fixed on the deepest meaning of experiences in life and rooted in a rediscovery of hope! Men and women, inspired in these areas by the values of their respective religious traditions, can offer an important, and even unique, contribution. This is truly a fertile land offering much fruit, also in the field of interreligious dialogue…

That which brings us together is the path of life. It is the good will to do good for the brothers and sisters. And as brothers, we go forward together. And each one of us offers the witness of their own identity to the other, and dialogues with the other. Then, when dialogue moves a bit forward on theological matters, that is beautiful but that which is most important is walking together without betraying one’s own identity, without masking it, without hypocrisy.


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