GENEVA, Switzerland — True religious liberty, based on the mutual recognition of religious groups, is necessary for peace and authentic human development, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“Religions are communities based on faith or belief, and their freedom guarantees a contribution of moral values without which the freedom of everyone is not possible,” the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations said March 6.
“The acceptance of the religious freedom of other persons and groups is the cornerstone of dialogue and collaboration.”
The archbishop’s message was delivered as part of the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council and was in response to a report by the U.N.’s investigator on freedom of religion and belief.
He said that, while the investigator, Heiner Bielefeldt, did well to focus on human-rights violations of religious minorities, the report centered too much on individuals and not enough on religious communities.
Archbishop Tomasi explained that “to eclipse the public role of religion creates a society which is unjust,” because it ignores human nature and stifles “authentic and lasting peace” in society.
The U.N. report on religious freedom noted extensive marginalization and attacks against religious minorities, which “should serve as a call to action,” he noted.
“Effective protection of the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities is lacking or inadequately addressed, even in the U.N. and international systems,” he emphasized.
The archbishop stressed that the protection of individuals’ religious freedom does not “translate automatically” to protection for religious communities, because there often remains a certain tension between the “minority” and the “majority” in a society.
Government “often identifies itself with the ‘dominant community’ in a way that unfortunately relegates minorities to a second-class status, thus also creating problems for the religious freedom of individuals,” he pointed out.
Archbishop Tomasi emphasized that there is not a competition between the freedoms of individuals and communities, but that they can be “reconciled and harmonized.”
He said there must be a balance between the demands of a community and individual freedoms. If the community is too vulnerable or the individual is a “prisoner,” then the balance has been thrown off.
The archbishop said that, to achieve this balance, religious groups must be granted legal status by governments.
He agreed with Bielefeldt’s recommendation that governments “create favorable conditions for persons belonging to religious minorities to ensure that they can take their faith-related affairs in their own hands in order to preserve and further develop their religious community life and identity.”
Freedom of Conscience
Archbishop Tomasi pointed out that secular states are often “not neutral” to religious communities, “not even in Western democracies.” In Western societies, he said, “liberalism leads not so much to a neutral society, but to one without a public presence of religion.”
Governments need to uphold freedom of conscience, he added, observing that it has increasingly become “impossible” for religious people to conform to “dominant social norms,” because they run counter to “moral dictates.”
Bielefeldt’s report did recommend that governments “enact legislation to protect members of religious or belief minorities, with a clear understanding of the universal normative status of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, a human right that covers individual, communitarian and infrastructural aspects as well as private and public dimensions of religion or belief.”
Archbishop Tomasi emphasized that “the recognition of the freedom of other religious communities does not reduce one’s own freedoms” and that a free society should not feel threatened by religious believers: “Genuine freedom of religion bans violence and coercion, and it opens the road to peace and authentic human development through mutual recognition.”