Racism in the 21st Century: A Catholic Perspective

DURBAN, South Africa—In the wake of the U.S. and Israeli pullout from the World Conference Against Racism, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin addressed the summit's most heated issues in an interview with Zenit news service. The American and Israeli delegations objected to the conference document's equating of Zionism with racism.

Archbishop Martin is the Holy See's Permanent Observer to U.N. offices in Geneva. He served as head of the Vatican delegation to the racism conference, which ran from Aug. 31-Sept. 7.

From the beginning, the Middle East question was the thorn that pricked the forum, yes?

Archbishop Martin: Unfortunately, already in the preparatory conferences there were moments of tension. I must say that our intervention on two or three occasions was decisive to calm the debate, redirecting it to its real source.

The problem is that the present situation in the Middle East makes it very difficult to remain serene. In any case, the conference is not a court to judge only one country. This is a historic moment in which an ethical question is being posed, and no one gets an excellent grade.

In what sense is it a historic moment?

Compared to the previous ones, the Durban conference is different; all countries are involved. All, at the same time, are good and bad. Racism is a current problem in all countries of the world, without a single exception—a problem that touches the feelings of the heart and not just policies.

One of the topics addressed is that of slavery—in particular, reparation to the victims’ descendants. The document “The Church in Face of Racism,” prepared by the Holy See on the eve of the summit, is favorable to compensation.

It is fundamental to make a moral acknowledgment, to recognize the historical truth, yet not to remain prisoners of the past, but to build a new future.

Therefore, the problem is not so much one of indemnity as such, but of doing the opposite to what was done with slavery and colonialism. If atrocious sufferings were caused then to so many villagers and peoples, resulting in incalculable economic damages, today policies must be implemented that value human resources, that help every person to become a protagonist in his or her own life.

There is a historical reading according to which the only ones guilty of slavery are the whites. However, Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, recalled that the whites bought slaves from Arab and African groups.

I think it is important to make an objective reading of history, so this aspect must also be considered. In fact, slavery today is a phenomenon that still happens in Africa among blacks. This is mentioned in the document presented by the [pontifical] Council for Justice and Peace on the eve of the conference.

The Holy See is favorable to the proposal of several African leaders to transform reparation into aid for development.

For example, I view the New African Initiative favorably, a program that was mentioned in this conference, launched by the African governments themselves, which points not only to economic development but also fosters the capacity of each one of the governments to be more efficient, eliminating corruption and nepotism.

At the conference, the Holy See addressed the topic of immigration, requesting governments to be more open.

Immigrants are among the primary victims of racism in our world, and this must be acknowledged.

In particular, illegal immigrants are victims of the most terrible abuses and, precisely because of their condition, they have no means to obtain justice.

However, how can this opening be reconciled with the need to elaborate concrete migratory policies, as the Holy See also affirms? Reality demonstrates that the massive and uncontrolled entry of immigrants ends by provoking racist reactions.

There is no contradiction. We are talking here about immigrants, not immigration. In other words, we are talking about individuals and their families, who have inalienable rights, and not about immigration policies, which are something different.

In your address to the Plenary Assembly, you said that education against racism begins in the family.

Yes, we have succeeded in including a paragraph in the Plan of Action that recognizes the role of the family, as education begins in the family. In it, the child understands for the first time the concept of the other. In the family, the other becomes a brother or sister.

And, in growing up, they must understand that the family is an open place, which opens to new brothers and sisters. The family must be the first school in which the roots of racist behavior must be firmly rejected.

In this conference, there has been no talk of religious discrimination, which happens in many Muslim countries, or of the situation in India. You did not raise the question either, despite the fact that many Catholics live under persecution.

It's true, nothing much has been said publicly, but it has [been addressed] in the working commissions. There is religious intolerance, but there is also interreligious dialogue.

This is why we have supported the introduction, later accepted, of an article that underlines the importance of interreligious dialogue as a factor of education against racism.

It hasn't been easy, given that there are delegations, like the European Union's, which are allergic to the religious question. Some would like to accuse religions of the factor of intolerance, something that is objectively unacceptable.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy