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Photo by Zenit's Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov

FEATURE: Inciting International Action to Defeat Religious Persecution & Repression

U.S. Embassy to the Holy See Explores Religious Freedom, an Inalienable Right From God, and Threats to It

A part of a comprehensive, international effort to incite action around the world to defeat religious persecution and repression….

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista L. Gingrich, stressed this when speaking about the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See-hosted symposium on religious freedom on Monday, June 25, 2018, on “Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action” at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce.  It included opening remarks by the Ambassador and closing remarks by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Presented in partnership with Aid to the Church in Need and the Community of Sant’Egidio, the symposium will promote the universal right of religious freedom and raise awareness of religious persecution, particularly in the Middle East.

Symposium speakers included Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, Cardinal-designate Joseph Coutts, Archbishop of Karachi, Pakistan, Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Professor Marco Impagliazzo, President of the Community of Sant’Egidio, and Mark Von Riedemann, Director of Public Affairs at Aid to the Church in Need. Yazidi Community Activist Salwa Khalaf Rasho and the Iraqi Ambassador to the Holy See, Omar Al-Barazanji, spoke, and Victoria Alvarado, Senior Advisor for International Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State, and former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, served as moderator.

America’s 1st Freedom

Ambassador Gingrich stressed: “The right to worship freely is America’s first freedom, codified in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Safeguarding religious freedom is fundamental to the founding principles of the United States. It’s part of who we are as a people and a nation.”

“America’s Founders understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as an inalienable right from God. Our commitment to this ideal remains steadfast.”

“As this year’s report shows – repression, violence, and discrimination are daily realities for millions of believers in every region of the world. In many cases, their human rights are limited or restricted entirely. Indeed, no religious community is immune from persecution.”

The Ambassador highlighted:

  • In Venezuela, President Maduro attacks leaders of the Catholic Church for exposing that
    people are starving and lack medical care.
  • Terrorist groups in parts of Africa kill scores of Christians and Muslims, and abduct
    schoolgirls.
  •  Christian pastors and Baha’i are jailed in Iran for exercising their right to worship freely.
  •  Anti-Semitism is on the rise globally.
  •  Russian authorities target and persecute peaceful religious groups at home and abroad.
  •  Minority groups like Ahmadi Muslims are persecuted in Pakistan.
  •  In China, Uighur Muslims are sent to re-education camps.
  •  Tibetan Buddhists are forbidden to organize — and their leaders are imprisoned.
  •  Rohingya Muslims face ethnic cleansing and displacement in Burma.
  •  Saudi Arabia prohibits non-Muslims from practicing their religion in public, and imprisons individuals for apostasy and blasphemy.
  • And Christians, Shia Muslims, and Yezidis in the Middle East continue to suffer from ISIS atrocities.

“What is most astonishing is that these examples represent just a small portion of religious persecution and repression around the world. As these facts illustrate, it’s a dangerous time to be a person of faith. We are at a critical moment. We can and must do more.”

Unmask Masquerades

Cardinal Parolin adamantly reminded: ‘No violence in the name of religion is acceptable.’

Moreover, the Vatican Secretary of State recalled the Holy Father’s words when he visited Egypt and addressed al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s highest institute of learning, on April 28, 2017: “Violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression,” he said. “As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than on authentic openness to the absolute.”

Imperative

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri recalled the Holy Father’s Sept. 26, 2015, address at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall: “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or, as I said earlier, to try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religious traditions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and the rights of others.”

The Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches highlighted how important it is to preserve Lebanon as well as the need to help Iraq.

Misuse

Cardinal-designate Joseph Coutts, Archbishop of Karachi, Pakistan, expressed how there used to be religious freedom in his country, but over time the right has ‘gradually eroded.’  He stressed, however, that not only the Christians suffer this, but also Muslims are targeted and persecuted.

The Blasphemy Law, he noted, is very easily misused. Even if there is no proof, one can easily be misused, to accuse someone of having ‘broken the law.’ When that person cannot defend himself from that accusation, then they face death.

He stressed that the way this law is formulated is very problematic, as it includes no consideration of ‘intent.’

No Compulsion

The Iraqi Ambassador to the Holy See gave a strong discourse. “One of the Human rights laws established by the United Nation, Article 1,2 and 18 of  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) consists of:  

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

“Also the Islamic religion has given this liberty for fourteen centuries in its texts and verses, one is very specific and says: ‘There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.’

Must Change

Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, stressed that religion should only be used to help other religions, not for any other reasons. He also noted that for progress to be made, they need to focus on helping people, rather than converting them, and that what is most important is not just ‘talking,’ but ‘constructing.’ The attitudes of people, as well as governments, he highlighted, must change.

Professor Marco Impagliazzo, President of the Community of Sant’Egidio, stressed that aside from the early centuries of the Church, those starting from the 20th Century are those where Christians are being persecuted the most. He also stressed how Sant’Egidio has been helping these suffering, but how more has to be done.

Mark Von Riedemann, Director of Public Affairs at Aid to the Church in Need, called for action. He stressed the need ‘to get facts straight,’ warning how much misinformation is circulating. In order to remedy these problems and make those who have had to flee, return, he said it is essential to find ways to help people integrate, get jobs, and set up basic infrastructure, such as water and electricity.

Horror Continues

Yazidi Community Activist Salwa Khalaf Rasho, whose Yezidi community has been subject to 74 genocidal campaigns throughout history, said the Islamic State killed thousands of Yezidi men ‘in the most horrific ways.’

“As a result,” she said, “about 60 mass graves have been found in my town of Sinjar. More than 6000 women and girls were kidnapped, including me and many of my relatives. We have been subjected to all types of sexual and physical abuse and violence. We were sold in slave markets.”

Having been kidnapped by ISIS and held captive for eight months, Salwa observed: ‘During this period I was subjected to unthinkable practices. I finally had the chance to escape from their grip, but other women and girls did not. More than 3,000 of them are still missing, enduring a fate of daily rape and torture which has constituted their lives for the past four years.”

Must Protect

Rev. Luis Navarro,  rector of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, reminded: “After right to life, according to St. Pope John Paul II, religious freedom is the next important right. It must be protected.” He expressed his hope this conference helps to protect this fundamental right.

The symposium featured panel discussions on protecting religious minorities in the Middle East, and promoting religious freedom through interreligious dialogue.  Participants included Holy See-accredited diplomats, faith leaders, civil society representatives, academics, and others.

“Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action” was a precursor to the first-ever “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” which will be convened by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, D.C., July 25-26.

About Deborah Castellano Lubov

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