At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, and we join the angels in praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). And yet, in some parts of the world, peace is as elusive now as it ever has been.
In addition, Christmas may be a busy time for churches here in some parts of Western Christendom, but in other parts of the world, Christians are not as free to celebrate as we are.
It’s appropriate, then, that Pope Benedict XVI should focus this year’s message for the World Day of Peace on “religious freedom, the path to peace.”
The World Day of Peace has been celebrated every year on the first of the year — the Octave Day of Christmas — since Pope Paul VI introduced it in 1968.
The message hadn’t been released as the Register went to press, but a Vatican statement, issued in July, gives us an idea of what tone it will take.
“It is well known that in many parts of the world there are various forms of restriction or denial of religious freedom, from discrimination and marginalization based on religion, to acts of violence against religious minorities,” said the statement.
That’s for sure. Unfortunately, many Christians have discovered this year that the words of the Lord still ring true: “They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name” (Matthew 24:9).
As the Register reports this week, a Christian woman almost received the death penalty in Pakistan because of remarks she made during a dispute with a Muslim neighbor. Her remarks were interpreted as violating her country’s law against blaspheming Islam or the prophet Mohammed. Though it appeared at press time that she would receive a presidential pardon, she still may become a victim of vigilantism. She will probably live the rest of her life living in fear.
Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shabhaz Bhatti, who is a Catholic, said he wanted a commission to consider revisions to the law. In response, he has received death threats. Nevertheless, Bhatti said he will not give up his battle to guarantee religious freedom for all the country’s people.
The year coming to a close has been a rough one for Christians in many parts of the world. One of the more dramatic examples of that was the Oct. 31 terrorist ambush that killed 58 people and wounded 75 at Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad.
The U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report, released Nov. 17, was completed before that attack, but noted 30 other attacks against Christians in Iraq between June 2009 and June 2010.
In Iraq, “very few of the perpetrators of violence committed against Christians and other religious minorities in the country were punished; arrests following a murder or other crimes were rare,” the report said.
Said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “These infringements on religious freedom strain the bonds that sustain democratic societies.”
In predominantly Muslim Saudi Arabia, according to the report, “U.S. government policy is to press the government consistently to honor its public commitment to permit private religious worship by religious minorities, eliminate discrimination against minorities, promote tolerance toward non-Muslims, and combat extremism.”
In addition to the State Department report, the Vatican has complained recently about violations of religious freedom in the People’s Republic of China. The ordination without papal approval of a bishop in China inflicted a “painful wound” on the Catholic Church, and government pressure on other bishops to participate in the ceremony was a “grave violation of freedom of religion and conscience,” the Vatican said Nov. 24.
And in Egypt, Christmas will bring back memories of an attack last January, when seven Orthodox Christians were killed leaving Divine Liturgy. Episodes of violence in Egypt have continued throughout the year and as a Christian worker there observed, it’s having a chilling effect on interfaith relations.
Christians are “being more reserved and avoiding contacts with Muslims,” the worker, who asked that his name not be used, told Catholic News Service. “It is not a very safe or healthy attitude toward each other.”
Pope Benedict’s words on religious freedom will be welcome because they will likely focus, as so much of his thinking does, on the authentic search for the truth.
“Religious freedom is authentically realized when it is experienced as the coherent search for truth and for the truth about man,” said the Vatican statement. “This approach to religious freedom offers us a fundamental criterion for discerning the phenomenon of religion and its expressions. It necessarily rejects the ‘religiosity’ of fundamentalism, and the manipulation of truth and of the truth about man. Since such distortions are opposed to the dignity of man and to the search for truth, they cannot be considered religious freedom.”
The statement concludes by highlighting how “man cannot be fragmented and separated from what he believes, because what he believes in has an impact on his life and on his person. ‘Refusal to recognize the contribution to society that is rooted in the religious dimension and in the quest for the Absolute — by its nature, expressing communion between persons — would effectively privilege an individualistic approach, and would fragment the unity of the person.’ It is for this reason that: ‘Religious Freedom is the Path to Peace.’”
We look forward to reading the Pope’s message, and we pray for a gradual softening of many hearts in the new year that dawns.