Religious Liberty, a Right Unlike the Rest

Interview With Attilio Tamburrini, Director of «Aid to the Church in Need» in Italy

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ROME, JUNE 27, 2003 ( The 2003 «Aid to the Church in Need» Report on Religious Liberty reveals that the freedom to practice one’s faith isn’t the rule in many parts of the world.

The Italian section of the ACN wrote the report, which was presented here Thursday. It is one of the most complete studies of the violations of the right to religious liberty and freedom of conscience, and of the identification of juridical restrictions or prohibitions in the practice of the faith around the world.

In this interview with ZENIT, Attilio Tamburrini, director of ACN’s Italian section, discusses the reasons for such a report.

Q: Why is ACN concerned with religious liberty?

Tamburrini: We are concerned with religious liberty because we believe that it is not a right like the rest. In general, attention is first given to democratic rights and other rights, and then to religious liberty. In an address to the diplomatic corps, John Paul II turned this view around completely, maintaining that religious liberty is a proof to verify if other rights are more or less respected.

In other words, if it is evident that religious liberty is respected, it is possible that all others are as well. It doesn’t happen automatically, but it is possible. If this is not the case, respect for the other rights is formal, not substantial. Therefore, in general religious liberty reflects the situation of respect for human rights in a country.

Q: What criteria define the right to religious liberty?

Tamburrini: One of the more ample statements that defines religious liberty is that of the United Nations of 1981, in which all the conditions are described; moreover, there are subsequent agreements at the level of the European Union, the OCSE — Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe — and statements in which a series of conditions are established which make it possible to judge if such a right is recognized in a specific country.

These criteria stem from the first principle: the freedom to choose one’s religion — therefore, the right to change it or not, or not to belong to any religion; the right of families to educate their children according to their choice; the right to practice publicly in places of prayer; and, lastly, the right, recognized fundamentally by all international bodies, to maintain relations, including at the international level, with those who share the same religion.

They are criteria that allow us to study various countries, both in fact and in law, as there can be legislation or constitutions which give the greatest theoretical liberty but where, in fact, religious liberty is impeded.

Q: What results follow from the 2003 Report?

Tamburrini: We have subdivided the world not in geographic areas but in areas identified according to difficulties. In regard to religious liberty in 2002, I would like to point out some critical situations.

China is one of the most worrying cases. A liberalization from the economic point of view is being accompanied, rather, by greater control from the ideological and social point of view, probably out of fear that economic liberalization might produce related phenomena.

In Kenya — it is the first case — we are beginning to see a fundamentalist phenomenon of traditional religions, as it preaches a change in the religion of Christians, a distancing of Muslims from Islam, and a return to traditional African religion. All this is imposed with violence. Genital mutilations, for example, are required by law. It is also a phenomenon of a political nature, as a party presented itself at the elections.

A phenomenon of anti-religious radicalization is being seen in post-Soviet countries. In Belarus, for example, it is prohibited to meet in private homes to pray without permission from the public authority, that is, the right to exercise religious liberty is carried to the level of concession on the part of the state. The problem of religious liberty is becoming more acute in Russia, as it is not enough to register at the national level, but rather the permission of the local authority is also necessary.

In Cuba, officially, there is no prohibition whatsoever, but the treatment received by believers can be seen by all.

In regard to Islam, the problem of Saudi Arabia persists, where one must be a Muslim. Suffice it to think that Christians cannot even be buried. It has reached a point where some embassies have requested a plot to which they ascribe extraterritoriality to be able to bury non-Muslims.

A certain fundamentalism coming from Saudi Arabia is influencing sub-Saharan Africa, which historically has had only moderate imams. In Sudan, the situation tends to worsen with the continual persecution of Christians.

In Asia, the situation is especially grave in Myanmar [former Burma], where no Catholic seminarian or priest can come to study in Rome. Permission is given only to emigrants with a work contract, with the proviso that 10% of the salary received in Italy is transferred to the Myanmar Embassy.

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