WASHINGTON — During a week that witnessed an explosion of violence in the Middle East, fueled by a video defaming the prophet Muhammad, the U.S. bishops ramped up their campaign against threats to religious freedom from across the globe.
Speaking at a Sept. 12 Washington conference, “International Religious Freedom: An Imperative for Peace and the Common Good,” held at The Catholic University of America, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York acknowledged the importance of respecting all faiths, but “unequivocally” rejected the violence that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“We come to this event with a sense of urgency,” stated Cardinal Dolan, kicking off a conference that brought together Vatican and U.S. government representatives, scholars and activists. The event was sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.
Cardinal Dolan said that “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.”
Noting that Pope Benedict XVI would arrive in Lebanon later in the week for a three-day pilgrimage, the cardinal predicted that the Holy Father would develop this point further in his public remarks.
Indeed, following his arrival in Lebanon, the Pope did not specifically address the recent violence linked to the video, but he commented on the “Arab Spring” uprisings and the promise and danger they pose to religious minorities.
The most “positive” aspect of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, Benedict suggested, is “the desire for more democracy, more liberty, more cooperation and a renewed Arab identity.”
However, as newly liberated societies chart their future, he added, “There is always a danger of forgetting a fundamental aspect of liberty — tolerance for others and the fact that human liberty is always a shared liberty.”
The Pope outlined a clear mission for Church leaders across the globe, stating: “We must do everything possible” to encourage tolerance and “reconciliation.”
Cardinal Dolan’s speech at the CUA conference embraced this mission in an impassioned address that wove together news headlines, statistics charting a rise in religious persecution, particularly against Christians, and portraits of “martyrs” who had given their lives to defend the faith and their fellow believers.
“At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith,” said the cardinal. “This animosity against Christians is so rampant that it now has a name: ‘Christophobia.’”
Cardinal Dolan and two top Vatican diplomats who addressed the gathering — Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, apostolic nuncio and permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York, and Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, apostolic nuncio and permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva — urged powerful nations like the United States to make religious freedom a top priority, not only to protect the rights of minority groups, but to address the mounting security threat posed by religious extremism.
Further, while the unfolding events in the Middle East highlighted the danger of attacks by Islamic militants, the speakers also noted that Western nations no longer place the same value on religious freedom, despite the strong correlation between democratic systems of government, economic development and laws protecting the rights of all believers.
“More than ever before, political analysts and human-rights advocates include religion in their agenda. But most of them emphasize either ‘tolerance,’ as if religion were merely a source of conflict, or ‘individual choices,’ as if religion were merely the concern of an individual’s convictions and were devoid of social consequences,” stated Archbishop Tomasi during a keynote address.
Archbishop Tomasi observed that after the close of the Second World War there was a concerted effort to strengthen religious liberty, a response, in part, to “the systematic violation of human dignity and human rights by the Nazi and communist, totalitarian regimes.”
The 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” brought religious freedom into “the realm of international law and jurisprudence. This prompted the framing and enforcement of other human-rights instruments at a global, regional and local level,” the archbishop reported, noting the 1981 “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.”
But conference speakers distinguished between Cold War-era religious persecution directed by totalitarian regimes and the contemporary problem of Islamic militancy in weak states like Pakistan and Egypt, where the policies of the national government may be more ambiguous and have limited impact.
Conference panelists addressed the very different context of religious persecution in Iraq, Nigeria and Cuba.
“In one sense, communism in Cuba did not evolve like it did in Eastern Europe. That makes it a special case,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told the Register after participating in a panel discussion on Cuba.
“Cuba knows it has to change, but they seem too timid, making economic but not political changes. They are trying to replicate the Chinese model and introduce a version of state-directed capitalism,” said the archbishop, who visits Cuba several times a year to meet with Church leaders and other groups.
Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, where attacks on Christians and their churches have been on the rise, told the Register that in his country religious violence is often linked to tribal and economic disputes. He said that the country’s constitution upheld religious liberty, including the freedom to convert, but those constitutional protections did not prevent outbreaks of religious violence.
In terms of what is happening in Iraq, Church leaders have raised the alarm about the dramatic decline in the Christian population in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Since the completion of the U.S. troop pullout, religious-freedom activists have continued to press Washington to advocate on behalf of Iraq’s embattled religious minorities.
Catholic Relief Services, a co-sponsor of the Sept 12 conference, has witnessed the brutal impact of sectarian conflict and religious perseution while providing food, shelter and other services to Iraqi refugees in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan.
"When governments around the world fail to respect and protect religious freedom, Catholic Relief Services is called to pick up the pieces: the reguees and persons displaced by conflict and discrimination need our attention and resources," Carolyn Woo, the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, told the Register. The agency, she reported, is now "meeting the basic needs of tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled the flighting" in their country.
“U.S. policymakers need to place greater priority on religious freedom in foreign-policy discussions and decisions,” Cardinal Dolan insisted, noting that he and his fellow bishops had been repeatedly contacted by Church leaders in Iraq and elsewhere who have sought their help.
This month in Pakistan, the blasphemy trial of a 14-year-old Christian girl with Down syndrome prompted expressions of concern from local church groups as well as the Vatican. The trial stirred questions about whether Washington had effectively condemned the use of blasphemy laws to target Christians and other vulnerable religious minorities.
Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center and a former diplomat, asserted that the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has little influence on policymaking, and criticized the limited resources recent administrations have provided for this issue.
The defense of religious freedom is a strategic issue that should be a top priority, he argued, and “the United States must become more effective in finding and supporting those Muslims who know that Islam can be defended without violence and that embracing religious freedom is in their vital interest.”
Denis McDonough, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor, sought to defend the administration’s record before conference participants, citing efforts to raise concerns about the state of religoius freedom in China, Burma and Pakistan.
Notably, McDonough, a Catholic, did not use his speech to address the federal contraception mandate and float a possible solution to the ongoing dispute between the administration and the USCCB. Cardinal Dolan, in his presentation, briefly referenced the bishops’ fight against domestic “threats that could marginalize the Church.”
While the USCCB president signaled that the battle against the federal mandate is not over, he stressed that the plight of persecuted Christians abroad is far more serious.
“In the words of Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for relations with states of the Holy See, ‘Of course nobody would confuse or equate this marginalization of religion with the actual persecution and killing of Christians in other areas of the world.’”
He also noted the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani cabinet minister killed last year for criticizing his country’s blasphemy laws. Bhatti, said the cardinal, was a devout Catholic of “uncommon courage and conviction, keenly aware of the threats to his life resulting from his human-rights work.”
The Washington conference underscored a renewed awareness among Catholic leaders that the Church’s promotion of religious liberty is not only concerned with defending the rights of persecuted Christians: This campaign highlights the essential role of the "First freedom" in the advancement of human rights and democratic rule of law across the globe. And if Church leaders remain true to that mission, then they must expect to face attacks from both an assertive secularism in the West and militant Islam and autocratic states in the developing world.
Commenting on the special urgency of this cause, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., told the Register that the “universal Church and its teaching,” played an important role in the world, working with political leaders and governments to serve the common good, but also transcending the political order to uphold the right to believe in God and act on inconvenient but central truths that secure human dignity and rights.
“The Church’s argument for human dignity — that we are created in the image and likeness of God — is probably its most significant contribution to the civil order and positive law,” Cardinal Wuerl said, during an interview following his address at a Sept. 13 conference hosted by the Religious Freedom Project. “Each of us stands equally before God, equally in need of mercy and grace. [This truth] has been the great equalizer in human history. … That is an enormous gift.”
Catholics in this country must do more to defend religious freedom in the world, but the stories of modern martyrs also offer U.S. Catholics a gift, he concluded. The courageous witness of such men and women inspire a deepened commitment to the ’New Evangelization,’ and offer a fitting model for believers as they embark on the upcoming “Year of Faith.”