President of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo, addressed the ‘Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action’ Symposium presented by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, in partnership with Aid to the Church in Need and the Community of Sant’Egidio, on June 25, 2018. Here is Dr. Impagliazzo’s full address, which he provided to Zenit:
In December 1965, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI published Dignitatis Humanae, a declaration on religious freedom and on the right of religious communities.
In this document the reflection of the church focuses on how the search for Truth belongs to the personal sphere of every man and woman and how, I quote from the declaration “such a doctrine on freedom has its roots in the divine Revelation, for which more must be respected with sacred commitment by Christians”.
53 years after its publication we can well say how the issue of religious freedom has become crucial for the Church: in fact it is estimated that Christians killed or persecuted for their faith are very numerous (out of 100 persecuted persons, 75 are Christians). Prof. Andrea Riccardi published a beautiful book entitled “Il Secolo del martirio” (Mondadori) a few years ago, which reveals how, apart from the first three centuries of the Church, the 20th century was the one with the highest number of Christians killed for their faith and their identity. Unfortunately, this tragic trend has continued in the 21st century. This calls for a reflection: the century considered the most secularized in history has given life to such a great number of martyrs and witnesses of faith!
In the past the idea of martyrdom was that of a titanic and isolated hero, perhaps inspired by Greek and Roman models. Martyrs of the past century however are not heroes, they do not seek death at all costs, they love life, but accept to be in danger, because they know they can set no limits to their love and their faith. They simply are real believers, meek and humble, and therefore strong. In Rome Sant’Egidio is entrusted with the pastoral care of the Basilica of St Bartholomew on the Tiber Island, which in the year 2000 became the shrine of the new martyrs of 20th and 21st century.
We all have images of death and destruction in our eyes, with the attacks against churches and Christian sites, like in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Attacks against believers during the celebrations. People defenseless and in prayer – the most peaceful posture of man – are killed only because they are Christians.
It must be said that finally, in this last phase, some reactions have also arisen from the European and Western world. In addition to discussing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the issue of Christianophobia, which means the violence and discrimination of Christians in the world, has also begun.
The defense of religious freedom and minorities has returned to the front pages in recent years because of the nefarious action of the Islamic state and its affiliates. Massacres, ethnic cleansing, slavery, forced conversions made by ISIS against Yazidi, Christians and other minorities. This was discussed in international forums and the UN. We owe a lot to the US action, and we congratulate the current administration’s initiative to organize a high-level forum in Washington to call everyone’s attention to this issue globally.
The theme was also a non-secondary subject last year in the conversation between Pope Francis and President Trump. The latter wanted to emphasize, right after the audience, how there is a “joint commitment” on the issues of religious freedom and respect for life
We know very well, not all the countries have the same sensitivity. For this reason, we must continue to work to favor it. A few years ago, the EU approved an Action Plan of member countries to monitor the treatment of religious minorities in the world, where Christians play an important role. I believe that it is necessary to solicit more incisive actions internationally, starting from the United Nations, to combat intolerance at all levels against religious minorities, especially Christians, so affected today.
At the same time, inter-religious dialogue must be encouraged.
I quote again from Dignitatis Humanae “Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered”
John Paul II strongly encouraged this dialogue between “seekers of truth”, and organized, together with the great religious leaders of the world, a Day of Prayer for peace in Assisi, in 1986. The Prayer for Peace became a great event that brought to the attention of everyone the “spirit of Assisi”, kept alive by the Community of Sant’Egidio since then through successive editions in different cities of the world. We must have the courage to walk together to the failures, to the great fractures of our world, also to defend our Christian brothers who live immersed in other religious worlds, such as Islam or Hinduism.
In a complex and interconnected world like ours, religions must help each other not to become factors of conflict but of peace: “never again one against the other!” cried John Paul II in Assisi, and he concluded: “peace is a workshop, open to all! ” This is an appeal to our sense of responsibility even today.
To respond to the manipulations of ISIS, the great traditional Islamic authorities have also raised their voices. Al Azhar has elaborated fatwe (dogmatic statements) which state that “killing a Christian and attacking a Christian place of worship is equivalent to killing a Muslim or attacking a mosque”. Even more significantly, a “response to al Baghadadi” signed by over 140 world Islamic religious leaders, condemns an interpretation of the Koran and the Sunna in an anti-Christian and anti-yezida sense. “To the Arab Christians – the ulema say to ISIS – you have given three choices: the jizyah (the tax), the sword or the conversion to Islam. You have painted their houses in red, destroyed their churches and in some places looted their homes and their properties. You have killed them and forced many into exile … such Christians are not those who fought or attacked Islam. On the contrary they are friends, neighbors, fellow citizens. In the perspective of the Sharia they fall under the ancestral agreements of 1400 years ago and the laws of jihad do not apply to them. …they are not foreigners on these lands, quite the contrary, they live in these places since pre-Islamic times. They are not enemies but friends. How can you treat them as enemies?” And on the Yezidis: “You fought the Yezidis under the banner of the jihad but they had not attacked you. You considered them as possessed by the devil and gave them the choice between conversion and death. You killed hundreds of them and were buried in mass graves. You made them die and suffer hundreds of others. Without the intervention of the Americans and the Kurds, thousands of men, women, children and the elderly would have died. These are horrible crimes. According to the sharia it is written “treat them like the people of the book”. They are people of the book because God has said: ‘the day of the resurrection God will distinguish one from the other: the believers, the Jews, the sabeans, the Christians, the magi and the polytheists. God is witness to everything ‘(Al Hajj 22,17). But even if you doubt that they are people of the book, there are many ancient venerates who assimilate them to the magi mentioned in the hadiths. The Umayyads – follow – also considered Hindus and Buddhists as dhimmi. “
We know that Islam is a complex and fragmented universe: the killing of the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, a Muslim who opposed the manipulative practice of the blasphemy law that incriminates and condemns many Christians, testifies to how Muslims at all levels are aware that the presence of Christian minorities is a guarantee of pluralism and democracy.
What we must believe is that cohabitation, living together, is not just something to be endured as a fatality: it is also the pledge of a more democratic society. Homologating temptations are dangerous for every society: the search for one’s enemy leaves us lost and ends up dividing into infinite groups. Today the preferable setting for the international community is to foster interreligious dialogue, as the Pope also urged, to avoid the radicalization of conflicts in countries where Christians have always played a role in society.
This is what Sant’Egidio has done and continues to do, multiplying the opportunities for dialogue both between different religions and within them. In the multifaceted and complex world of religions, there is a work of purification that must be done also within the religions themselves. The meeting that will be held in Bari on July 7, summoned by Pope Francis and involving the religious leaders of the Churches of the Middle East, is situated in this line of dialogue.”Religious freedom is a fundamental human right: every individual must be free, alone or associated with others, to seek the truth, to openly express his religious convictions, free from intimidation and external constraints. […] authentic adoration of God leads not to discrimination, hatred and violence, but to respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others and the loving commitment to the well-being of all “.
We must observe that the growing public importance of religion, also in the field of international relations, makes an approach based only on the geopolitical importance of Christian Churches in the Middle East insufficient. The presence of Christians in the East is also a sign of civilizations that meet, of culture, and above all it represents the visible root of an ancient history, before Islam, which feels at home. It is therefore extremely urgent to find concrete and shared solutions in order to combat the emigration of Christians from the Middle East. In this perspective Sant’Egidio has been working for thirty years, in a close relationship of friendship and sharing with the brothers of the East. I mention only the negotiations held in Rome on the liberation of the Christian village in the Lebanese Chouf, surrounded by the Druze troops, during the 1982 war; the cordoned action to save the Chaldeans during the first Gulf War (1986-88), sent as meat to the slaughter by Saddam against the Iranians. On that occasion entire Christian villages were emptied in the north of the country.
I am sure that these brief reflections can only represent an introduction to such a vast and complex subject. But it is clear that our civilization must confront this problem and must find new ways to solve it.
We have the task of keeping dialogue open, for it must never be interrupted.
We have the task of understanding and supporting with participation those who are deprived of the freedom to profess their faith and are persecuted.
To conclude, we have the task of making today’s meeting the first of a long series because, quoting the words of Pope Francis: “Religious freedom is a fundamental human right: every individual must be free, alone or associated with others, to seek the truth, to openly express his religious convictions, free from intimidation and external constraints … […] the authentic adoration of God leads not to discrimination, hatred and violence, but to respect for the sacredness of life , respect for the dignity and freedom of others and the loving commitment to the well-being of all “.