The recent assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the blasphemy trial of a 14-year-old Christian girl with Down syndrome in Pakistan shine a spotlight on the increasing threat to religious freedom around the globe.
It is not yet clear why a large group of militants waged their murderous attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens. Early reports suggested that a U.S.-produced video expressing disrespect for the prophet Muhammad played a role. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Vatican issued a strong statement opposing public expressions of disrespect for any religious belief.
That theme was echoed in several statements issued by the U.S. State Department. But the violence that exploded in Benghazi, and then Egypt and Yemen, underscored a growing tendency of some militants to employ violence to punish real and perceived attacks on Islam.
And while the Libyan government sought to defend the U.S. ambassador and his staff, in Cairo, the newly elected Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, did not condemn similar, but not lethal, attacks on the U.S. Embassy, leaving the impression that mob violence and other forms of extra judicial prosecution of blasphemy laws would be tolerated by the state.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the broader context of these events during a Sept. 12 address, "International Religious Freedom: An Imperative for Peace and the Common Good," during a high-level conference at The Catholic University of America.
Before an audience of Vatican representatives, his fellow bishops and U.S. government officials, the cardinal suggested that the "events in Libya and Egypt point to what is at stake. We need to be respectful of other religious traditions at the same time that we unequivocally proclaim that violence in the name of religion is wrong."
The cardinal reported that Catholic and Christian leaders around the world looked to the conference to advocate on their behalf before fellow Catholics and before the U.S. government. There is hope that Washington will make international religious freedom a greater priority and begin to link foreign and military aid to countries like Pakistan and Egypt, which will soon receive $1 billion for debt relief.
But during the conference, sponsored by the USCCB and Catholic Relief Services, the cardinal also called on Catholics to deepen their knowledge of this issue and register their concerns with their elected representatives.
"Americans generally, and our Catholic brothers and sisters especially, need to become better informed of the systematic challenges to the fundamental right of religious freedom in far too many countries," the cardinal urged.
The first freedom, which we too often take for granted in our own nation, even as we are vigilant in its defense, is under often violent attack.