On September 27, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State and Head of the Delegation of the Holy See to the Seventh-Fourth Session of the United Nations General Assembly taking place at U.N. Headquarters in New York, gave an intervention during the High-Level Panel Discussion hosted by Hungary, entitled, “Rebuilding Lives, Rebuilding Communities: Ensuring a Future for Persecuted Christians.”
In his remarks, Cardinal Parolin spoke about his visit to the Nineveh Plain of Iraq last Christmas, where he sought to encourage returning Christians in their patient and persevering efforts to rebuild their lives, homes and communities after ISIS atrocities. He compared their return from forced exile to that of the Holy Family and said that it is a sign that evil does not have the last word and praised their vital Christian witness in the Middle East. While he was edified by their courage, faith, and joy, he said he was struck by how the rebuilding project is still at some of its early stages, with much infrastructure still having to be reconstructed, sufficient security needing to be provided, and basic humanitarian aid, jobs, education and youth programs, mental health care still needing to be given. He called on the international community to assist them in a comprehensive way, especially ensuring their religious freedom. He mentioned that Iraq and Syria are not the only areas where Christians have suffered because of their faith, specifically noting the sufferings of Christians in Sri Lanka. In response to the great challenge of protecting religious freedom, he said, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, signed a joint Declaration on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living together, which he said provides guidance on securing religious freedom today and is a path toward reconciliation and fraternity not merely among Christians and Muslims but among all people of goodwill.
Following is the Cardinal’s Full Intervention
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists, and Delegates, Dear Ladies, and Gentlemen,
It is an honor to participate in this morning’s panel discussion dedicated to rebuilding the lives and communities of persecuted Christians and ensuring their future. I thank His Excellency, Mr. Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, for the kind invitation and for Hungary’s continued support for persecuted Christians and for its concrete efforts to assist the victims of religious persecution, especially in the Middle East.
Last December 24th to 28th, I had the privilege to travel to the Nineveh Plains in Iraq to celebrate Christmas with some of the most courageous and inspiring people I have ever met. I went there to bring the greetings and blessing of Pope Francis and to be a personal reminder of the fact that they are in his daily thoughts and prayers. I sought to encourage them in their patient and persevering efforts to rebuild their lives, homes, communities, Churches, schools, hospitals, workplaces and country after the unspeakable atrocities wrought by Da’esh.
Being with them during the Christmas season gave me a chance to look at the recent experiences of persecuted Christians through the prism of the Holy Family. Two thousand years ago, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were driven from their land by the homicidal madness of King Herod and his armed assassins. After a period of exile and the end of Herod’s reign, they were able to return home to Nazareth. Many of the Christians of the Nineveh Plains, after their escape and exile, have now been able to return home, to begin the arduous process, not just of reconstructing buildings, but of reassembling the social fabric that has been rent asunder by hatred, betrayal, and brutality. Their return, I told them, is a sign that evil does not have the last word. It is also a powerful witness of the importance of a Christian presence in the Middle East, where Christianity has its deepest historical roots and has been a fundamental source of peace, stability, and pluralism for centuries.
While I was so edified by their rich humanity, infectious joy, and strong faith, I was also struck at the state of the rebuilding process. As I walked in the city of Mosul, there was still rubble everywhere, making it difficult to traverse. Much of the basic infrastructure still needs to be rebuilt. The security situation, which is essential for the region to flourish anew, is still tenuous.
Basic humanitarian aid also remains necessary. There is a pressing need for jobs and job training, for education and youth programs, for mental health care and much more. Plentiful help has been given to the region by governments, like our host this morning, Hungary, and by charitable and humanitarian agencies, like Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus and Caritas Internationalis.
To ensure their return and long-term prospects of remaining peacefully in their homes, there is so much more that needs to be done. Indeed, while security is a first and essential priority, for them to recover a dignified way of life requires more. Thus, we call on the international community to continue to assist them in a comprehensive manner, where prevention, humanitarian assistance, and development efforts form a coherent continuum, and where ensuring the full enjoyment of the fundamental human rights and freedoms of persons belonging to minorities, especially the freedom of religion and belief, is at the heart of all efforts.
While Iraq and Syria are the most conspicuous areas in which Christians and other religious minorities, have been persecuted and massacred and, consequently, are in need of rebuilding their lives and communities, they are far from the only places in which Christian lives are at risk. The horrifying Easter Sunday attack on Christians in Sri Lanka, like those perpetrated against Muslims in Christchurch and against Jews in Pittsburgh, focused world attention on how, even in otherwise peaceful societies, Christians and followers of other religions can become the target of violence solely because of their religious practice.
All of us here this morning know that religious freedom is a fundamental right. It is grounded in human dignity. It means far more than the right to believe or worship, and includes the right to seek the truth and the liberty to live, privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles that flow from religious ones. Protecting religious freedom, which is a grave duty incumbent upon civil authorities, is a great challenge in our present world.
In response to that challenge, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, signed on the 4th of February this year in Abu Dhabi a joint Declaration on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together 1 wherein they sought to address together, both where attacks against religious freedom originate and what must be done to prevent or defend against those attacks. It provides guiding light, I think, not only for religious believers of their two traditions but for believers in general and for the international community. The Pope and the Grand Imam hope that their joint declaration will constitute an invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among Christians, Muslims, and all believers, among believers and non-believers, and among all people of goodwill, including policymakers and people in authority.
They explicitly addressed the right to religious freedom and what must be done to defend and advance it. They then spoke about the protection of places of worship as a direct consequence of the defense of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
And, very importantly, they mutually affirmed that in order to protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, there is a need to bolster the concept of the rule of law and equality before the law based on the principle of citizenship, regardless of one’s religion, race or ethnicity. “The concept of citizenship,” they wrote, “is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice. It is, therefore, crucial to establish in our societies,” they continued, “the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities that engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority.”
In conclusion, I would like to reaffirm that the Holy See will continue to be fully engaged in the promotion of religious freedom, as this fundamental human right is intimately connected with the protection of conscience and the defense of the human person. While I would encourage you all to read the complete text, if you have not done so already, of the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, I would like to close by citing one of the passages, which to me seems to be at the heart of this discussion, where we read:
“We affirm also the importance of awakening religious awareness and the need to revive this awareness in the hearts of new generations through sound education and an adherence to moral values and upright religious teachings. In this way, we can confront tendencies that are individualistic, selfish, conflicting, and also address radicalism and blind extremism in all its forms and expressions.”
Thank you for your attention.
1. Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, Document on Human Fraternity: for World Peace and Living Together, 4 February 2019; http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/travels/2019/outside/documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html.
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