Right to Religious Liberty

EDITORIAL: Francis showed the way in Egypt, and America should take up his call.

The Pope called for respect for human rights, especially the right to religious liberty, while in Egypt last month.
The Pope called for respect for human rights, especially the right to religious liberty, while in Egypt last month. (photo: Instagram.com/Franciscus)

Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt at the end of April, though brief, gave the Holy Father an opportunity to remind the world about the necessity of striving for the common good, building a just society, overcoming poverty and exploitation and seeking unity in the face of violence and religious extremism.

At the heart of his message was an urgent call to respect human rights, especially the right to religious liberty. “Development, prosperity and peace are essential goods that merit every sacrifice,” Francis told the gathered leaders of Egypt at the Al Masah Hotel in Cairo April 28. “They are also goals that demand hard work, conviction and commitment, adequate planning and, above all, unconditional respect for inalienable human rights, such as equality among all citizens, religious freedom and freedom of expression, without any distinction.”

The Holy Father arrived in Egypt at a difficult and dangerous time. Mere weeks after the fatal bombing of two Coptic Christian churches that left more than 40 dead and 100 injured, and with Christians in Egypt under constant threat from radical Islamic groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), the fears for the safety of Pope Francis were genuine.

His very willingness to go to Cairo sent a formidable message that he is willing to go anywhere in the name of dialogue, peace and hope, but he also wanted to stress the importance of religious freedom. He spoke three times in three major addresses about religious liberty.

He brought the renewed pledge of spiritual support to the Coptic Christians, including the beleaguered members of the Orthodox Coptic Church, the largest Christian population in the Middle East, numbering some 10 million. He had a heartfelt meeting with Patriarch Tawadros II, head of the Orthodox Coptic community, and they signed a joint declaration to encourage full communion in the future.

In that declaration, he and Tawadros spoke directly to the Muslim world. “Since we believe that all human beings are created in the image of God,” they proclaimed, “we strive for serenity and concord through a peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims, thus bearing witness to God’s desire for the unity and harmony of the entire human family and the equal dignity of each human being. … All members of society have the right and duty to participate fully in the life of the nation, enjoying full and equal citizenship and collaborating to build up their country. Religious freedom, including freedom of conscience, rooted in the dignity of the person, is the cornerstone of all other freedoms. It is a sacred and inalienable right.”

And at Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s leading centers for Islamic studies, Francis also called for the recognition of basic freedoms, including religion. Addressing interreligious dialogue, he argued that “respectful openness and sincere dialogue with others, recognizing their rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility. For the only alternative to the civility of encounter is the incivility of conflict; there is no other way.” These were words that all three of Pope Francis’ hosts — the Egyptian government, the leaders of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Christians — needed to hear.

The message, however, was not just for Egyptians, but for all people, including Americans. The fledgling Trump administration has shown signs of understanding the global threats to religious freedom. On May 4, the president signed a much anticipated executive order that promised relief for those opposed to the HHS contraceptive mandate on religious grounds and pledged to protect the religious liberty of all Americans. At the signing, the president told the Little Sisters of the Poor, “Your long ordeal is finally over!” This was a most welcome development and a good start, but specific steps still need to be implemented. The president also recently answered a question from EWTN News Nightly With Lauren Ashburn’s executive producer, Susanna Pinto, about protecting Christians from persecution. He declared: “Nobody has been treated worse in the Middle East” than Christians. “I’m going to be helping Christians big league.”

These are reassuring statements from the president. And, recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the wife of pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in a Turkish prison since October. Brunson was arrested by Turkish police on the ludicrous charge of being a member of a terror cell in the country. The Trump administration has the opportunity to advance the cause of religious freedom at home and abroad.

To do so, the president must grapple with these questions: 

First, will the United States embrace religious freedom and respect for human rights as part of a comprehensive national security strategy and consider it a major priority for diplomatic initiatives, or will the State Department prioritize the same global gender ideology-based agenda that was a hallmark of the previous administration’s diplomacy?

Second, will part of that strategy connect foreign aid and funding for international assistance to the respect for human rights and religious freedom? Will the U.S. assist countries — like Egypt and Iraq — to develop tools to enshrine legal and social respect for religious freedom? Will the government expand the work of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the Office of International Religious Freedom to promote “religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy,” as its mandate stipulates?

Third, will America give priority to the refugee resettlement of persecuted religious minorities, including the long-suffering Christians of Iraq and Syria and the Yazidis? They have been all but forgotten in the refugee crisis.

Pope Francis might be an ideal partner in this effort. Pope Francis and President Trump will meet at the end of May. The mainstream media has focused on their differences and potential disagreements, but the two leaders could become important collaborators in the fight for religious freedom across the world. The partnership could start with the Middle East. There has been much to celebrate from the pro-life perspective in the first 100 days of the Trump administration. We urge the president and his staff to use the next 100 days to craft a robust and effective strategy to safeguard religious rights. Francis showed the way in Egypt, and America should take up his call.