National Catholic Register


The Reality of Difference and the Mystery of Human Life

BY Archbishop Renato Martino

Dec. 1-7, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/1/96 at 2:00 PM


Archbishop Renato Martino, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, Nov. 19 addressed the General Assembly on Item 110(B): “Human Rights Questions: Religious Intolerance.”

Madam Chairperson,

Last year, during this organization's 50th anniversary session, the General Assembly reaffirmed that freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief was a human right derived from the inherent dignity of the human person and that it is guaranteed to all without discrimination. The General Assembly, while urging states to ensure that their constitutional and legal systems provided for and protected this right, also requested governments to provide effective remedies in cases where the right to freedom of religion or belief was violated, to ensure that its own agents did not discriminate against persons professing other religions or beliefs, to recognize the right of all persons to worship or assemble in connection with a religion or belief, and to establish and maintain places for those purposes.

In recent decades tremendous risks and sufferings have been experienced by peoples around the world in pursuit of their freedom. Among human rights, the right to religious freedom and to respect for one's conscience on its journey towards the truth is increasingly perceived as the foundation of the cumulative rights of the person. This heightened sense of the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience, certainly represents one of the positive achievements of modern culture.

Over the past 50 years the international community has demonstrated its interest in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental liberties, especially with regard to freedom of conscience and of religion. Beginning with its ground-breaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations proclaimed: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” This has been reaffirmed by the Special Rapporteur in his report which is well in line with these provisions.

Fighting Religious Intolerance

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief, which occupies a place of honor among the great instruments that the United Nations has produced in the field of human rights.

More recently, the international community participated in the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. This important conference called upon governments to take appropriate measures to counter intolerance and related violence based on religion or belief, and urged states to put into practice the provisions of the declaration against religious intolerance.

Particular progress has been made in many countries following the vast political changes that have occurred during the last few years in Central and Eastern Europe. The number of countries holding official ideologically inspired policies of religious persecution or repression has notably diminished. It is to be hoped that such progress will extend soon to all parts of the world. My delegation reminds the international community that it is the special duty of governments to promote and protect the freedom of religion. In doing so, governments must not act in an arbitrary fashion or in an unfair spirit of partisanship. Additionally, my delegation wishes to stress that freedom of religion ought not to be confused with freedom from religion, which is the result of an exaggerated and distorted separation of Church and state.

One of the principal causes of intolerance is the fear of differences. The Holy Father noted this in his address to this organization during its 50th session when he said: “Unhappily, the world has yet to learn how to live with diversity, as recent events in the Balkans and Central Africa have painfully reminded us. The fact of &lspuo;difference’ and the reality of &lspuo;the other’, can sometimes be felt as a burden, or even as a threat. Amplified by historic grievances and exacerbated by the manipulations of the unscrupulous, the fear of &lspuo;difference’ can lead to a denial of the very humanity of &lspuo;the other’: with the result that people fill into a cycle of violence in which no one is spared, not even the children.”

With regard to religious intolerance, my delegation regrets to note that in too many regions, believers arc still subjected to serious discrimination, oftentimes at the hint of officials whose countries&spos; constitutions recognize the right to religious liberty and to freedom of conscience. One such glaring example is that of the recent taping of a prisoner's sacramental confession. This, undoubtedly, is an intrusion of the state into the practice of religion.

Sadly, other contemporary examples of religious intolerance are all too similar to those that are centuries old. Besides torture, expulsion and imprisonment in concentration and “re-education” camps, there exists social discrimination or permanent restriction of personal liberty, which include forcing believers to meet in hiding because their religious community is not legally authorized; religious leaden who are forbidden to publicly exercise their ministry and restrictions against religious instruction of children and adults, just to name a few.

There also exist numerous subtle forms of discrimination based upon religion. For example, while a state may permit its citizens to practice their religion of choice, such a choice may lead to being excluded from jobs, education, housing, or social assistance. Additionally, there exist instances where some governments, professing a particular religion, and whose co-believers enjoy full freedom of worship and religious education both within their boundaries and abroad, have denied similar rights to members of other religions who live in their country.

My delegation wishes to affirm that tolerance does not demand that one shares the other's religious conviction or practices. In fact, it implies that one does not What tolerance does demand is that the other's freedom of religious conviction and practices, provided that the just requirements of public order are observed, be respected and not impeded. Religious intolerance denies others the rights that one claims for oneself.

Furthermore, the answer to the problem of religious intolerance is neither indifference nor secularism: the former encourages man to live as if God did not exist; the latter has contributed to the widespread loss of the transcendent sense of human life, and confusion in the ethical sphere, even about the fundamental values of respect for life and the family.

Tolerance, on the other hand, acknowledges that the search for truth, and specifically for religious truth, is a fundamental right and duty of every person. And, in keeping with the very nature of the human being, this search for truth must enjoy immunity from all forms of coercion. The right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it: they too cannot be coerced. And, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us, this right includes freedom to change one's religion or belief. Thus, in professing or changing one's religion, provided that such choices have been made freely and without any form of coercion, tile fundamental regard for the human dignity of each person demands that one's decisions be respected and that no retaliation or discrimination be invoked or implemented that would violate a person's fundamental human rights.

The avoidance of coercion is also required of religions themselves. “In propagating the faith and introducing religious practices, (one) must always refrain from all forms of behavior that have about them a whiff of coercion, dishonesty or insincere persuasion, especially with people without their own culture or resources. Such behavior must be regarded as abusing one's rights and violating the rights of others.” This principle has been enshrined in the Code of Canon Law, which is the legislative document of the Catholic Church (canon 748 ß 2).

Respecting Differences

Pope John Paul II, during his visit last year to headquarters, offered an important reflection on how differences, rather than leading to intolerance and division, can be a source of enrichment. He said: “… Different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. And it is precisely here that we find one source of the respect which is due to every culture and every nation: every culture is an effort to ponder the mystery of the world and in particular of the human person. It is a way of giving expression to the transcendent dimension of human life.” He added; “Our respect for the culture of others is therefore rooted in our respect for each community's attempt to answer the question of human life.” And here we can see how important it is to safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society.

To cut oneself off from the reality of difference—or, worse, to attempt to stamp out that difference—is to cut oneself off from the possibility of sounding the depths of the mystery of human life. The &lspuo;difference’ which some find so threatening can, through respectful dialogue, become the source of a deeper understanding of the mystery of human existence.”