Holy See: 'Tolerance' Can't Be Set Against Religious Freedom

Vatican official gives keynote address at OSCE conference on combatting discrimination

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Here is the intervention given by Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, undersecretary for Relations With States, at the opening of at the OSCE/ODIHR Conference on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, held Dec. 14 in Vienna.

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Holy See considers it a duty to insist on the continuing – indeed, the lasting – importance of the freedom of religion or belief. From the Holy See’s first engagement with the Helsinki negotiations, through the decades of the CSCE conferences and meetings, to the extensive work of the OSCE today, defending and promoting the freedom of religion or belief has been, and remains, a key and essential priority of the Holy See’s relentless efforts to safeguard the inherent dignity of every man and every women. The Holy See does so, not because it is pursuing its own interests as the supreme governing authority of the Catholic Church or because it is uninterested in other rights or freedoms, but because the freedom of religion or belief is the litmus test for respect of all other human rights and fundamental freedoms, since it is their synthesis and keystone.
Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II memorably stated that religious freedom constituted the “very heart of human rights”.1Religious freedom, thus, is essential to defending the human rights of all people, whether they are believers or non-believers, since within the realm of conscience, that constitutes the dignity of the human person, there are interrelated and indivisible human rights, such as freedom of religion or belief, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. In fact, combatting Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians can be an effective tool in defending the human rights of other religious believers, and, indeed, the human rights of those who profess no religion.
Therefore, the Holy See considers it a great honour to be invited to deliver the keynote address to this Conference on Combating Intolerance and Discriminations of Christians. Before doing so, I would like to begin by thanking Ambassador Eberhard Pohl, Chairperson of the Permanent Council, and Dr. Michael Link, Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, for their profound opening words. I also wish to express the Holy See’s gratitude to the staff of the ODIHR for having organized this event.
With regard to our Conference theme, I would like to dwell – albeit briefly – on three issues: 1) religious intolerance and freedom of religion or belief; 2) various forms, including more recent forms, of intolerance and discrimination against Christians; and 3) the potential for good that lies in engaging with religion or belief.
Freedom of religion or belief and intolerance/discrimination
Discrimination and intolerance against Christians, which target men and women, not because of their race, sex or language, but because of their faith, represent a violation and a direct challenge to the freedom of religion or belief, one of the human rights explicitly mentioned in the Helsinki Final Act, and safeguarded in subsequent OSCE commitments, as a priority of this Organization and its 57 participating States.
Although, at first glance, it might seem surprising that the CSCE and the OSCE – as a regional security arrangement – should be engaged with issues of freedom of religion or belief and efforts to combat discrimination and intolerance against Christians, a deeper reflection of the issues involved make the reasons for this attention very clear. Intolerance and discrimination against Christians, as any intolerance and discrimination on religious grounds, are not only an indicator of human rights violations but they have also been proven to be a fertile ground for further violations of human rights that impair and threaten social cohesion, that may lead to violence and conflict, even between States. If the OSCE truly strives to bring about – from Vladivostok to Vancouver – security and co-operation, it must remain vigilant with regard to intolerance and discrimination that target men and women simply because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Intolerance and discrimination against Christians – many forms
Although the obvious focus of this Conference is on the OSCE region, and without doubt, there are many examples and incidences of concern within our region, I would be remiss if I did not at least recall the barbaric persecution of Christians that takes place in other parts of the world, sadly also at the very doorstep of the OSCE. The atrocities committed against Christians in Syria and Iraq are so horrific that words cannot adequately respond, and their plight must not be forgotten. Indeed, in these last few days, the deathly shadow of violent extremism and terrorism has fallen once again upon the Coptic community in Egypt.
Considering the reality of the OSCE area, we must recognize that discrimination and intolerance, including hate crimes, impact many Christians and Christian communities, despite a frequently encountered notion that in this part of the world such discrimination or intolerance does not occur. Seemingly, belonging to the majority religion precludes Christians from being considered as victims of intolerance. Such a view, however, is not based on reality.
The continuous attacks against Christian churches and religious buildings, time, and time again, affirmed by ODIHR data, easily disprove the notion that Christians do not suffer intolerance. The premeditated destruction of churches, chapels and halls, the deliberate vandalism of religious spaces and symbols, including crosses, statues and other Christian artefacts, as well as theft and sacrilegious misuse of that which Christians consider to be holy, are all examples of not only disrespectful, but intolerant, and in most cases criminal acts committed with a bias motive.
New forms of intolerance and discrimination of Christians
The Holy See has repeatedly noted that intolerance and discrimination of Christians is not simply about violent attacks or wanton destruction of religious artefacts and comes in many new forms. Such new forms of intolerance and discrimination need to be acknowledged. In one of his major addresses on Christianity in society, Pope Benedict XVI identified several deeply worrying trends:
Religion…is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.”2
These examples of what may rightly be called “anti-Christian sentiment”, represent a new form of intolerance and discrimination against Christians. As Benedict XVI pointed out, it is based on setting the freedom of religion or belief against some general notion of tolerance and non-discrimination.
Tolerance and non-discrimination, however, should not be used, or interpreted, in a way that would restrict freedom of religion or belief or other fundamental freedoms. Anti-discrimination legislation that denies freedom of religion or belief – and often ignores the right of Christians to act in accordance with their beliefs and interests – stands in stark contrast to well-established OSCE commitments. Let me make an important distinction here: the Holy See strongly adheres to the principle that every right entails obligations and duties. Therefore, a self-professed Christian cannot claim that freedom of religion or belief entitles him to call for violence against non-believers. However, in the same fashion, a Christian preacher who respectfully and faithfully teaches the religious or moral tenets of his Church is protected by freedom of religion even if the majority opinion is uncomfortable with his proclamation. We must raise awareness of discrimination against Christians even in regions where international public opinion would normally not expect this to exist. To act and speak out publicly as a committed Christian in one’s professional life has never been more threatened. Christians, as well as others, should therefore be allowed to express publicly their religious identity, free from any pressure to hide or disguise it.
Such discomfort with or, indeed, opposition to any public role of religion lies behind what Pope Francis has referred to as the “polite persecution of Christians” in many countries. In the guise of “political correctness”, Christian faith and morals are considered to be hostile and offensive, and therefore, something to be removed from public discourse. But why is this? Why is religion, and Christianity in particular, feared when it seeks to make its voice heard on issues that are of interest, not only to believers, but to the common good of society? This fear of Christianity playing its legitimate role in the public square betrays a “reductionist” view or approach to the freedom of religion or belief, confining it merely to the freedom of worship. Against such a trend, the Holy Father has affirmed that:
“Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Because religion itself, the religious dimension, is not a subculture; it is part of the culture of every people and every nation.”3
Restrictions on religious freedom need to be challenged, as hate crimes invariably flourish in an environment where religious freedom is not fully respected and where religion is discriminated.
Religion or belief as a positive factor
Despite the many challenges we face in combating intolerance against Christians, we should not forget that religion or belief – and therefore Christianity – has an unlimited capacity for good, not only for individuals or communities (one need only consider the Herculean charitable works that are carried out by Christians), but also for society as a whole.
While acknowledging the positive role that religion can play in the public sphere and in society, Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, reaffirmed that “the Church does not pretend … to substitute for politics”4. Nor does the Church claim to offer technical solutions to the world’s problems since the responsibility of doing that belongs elsewhere. Religion, however, has a special task to offer its guiding principles to the community of believers and society in general. By its nature, it is open to a larger reality and thus it can lead people and institutions towards a more universal vision, to a horizon of universal fraternity that ennobles and enriches the character of humanitarian assistance. A person truly formed by a religious vision cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of men and women.
The OSCE has clearly recognised this vital and essential public dimension of religious communities. In this regard, I draw your attention to principle 16 of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document and Ministerial Council Decision No. 3/13. These commitments request participating States to include religious communities in public dialogue, also through the mass media. Consequently, States should welcome the interventions of representatives of religious communities that give their views – based on moral convictions deriving from faith – about everyday life and, in particular, on the legislative and administrative provisions of their countries.
The Holy See is convinced that for both individuals and communities the dimension of belief can foster respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights, support democracy and rule of law and contribute to the quest for truth and justice. Furthermore, dialogue and partnerships between religions, and with religions, are an important means to promote confidence, trust, reconciliation, mutual respect and understanding as well as to foster peace.
Our common efforts to combat intolerance or discrimination against Christians starts from our common recognition of freedom of religion or belief, and – as Pope Francis has pointed out – :
“This includes ‘the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public’.A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism.”5
Thank you all for your kind attention.
Pope John Paul II, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1999, n. 5.
Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Representatives of British Society, including the Diplomatic Corps, Politicians, Academics and Business Leaders in Westminster Hall, 17 September 2010.
Pope Francis, Meeting for Religious Liberty, Philadelphia, 26 September 2015.
Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’, n. 188.
Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, N. 255.
[02017-EN.01] [Original text: English]

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