Some 30 experts have gathered in Rome this weekend for a conference to explore religious persecution against Christians throughout the world.
The conference, titled “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” has been organized by Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, in collaboration with the Acton Institute. It is being held at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome today and Saturday.
The aim of the gathering is to provide a forum for discussion and debate on the contributions of Christians and Christian ideas of freedom, both historically and in the contemporary world.
This week’s conference also coincides with the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan which established religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire.
Speaking during one of this morning’s panel discussions, Mariz Tadros, a research fellow for the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, highlighted the nuances of religious persecution against Christians as it exists in the Middle East, especially in Egypt.
In her paper, she noted how there has been a sharp rise in the number and intensity of “un-triggered” assaults against Christians since 2011.
“New forms of violence specific to religious identity,” she explained, “began to emerge in the past three years such as cutting of women’s hair in public transport, the cutting of a Coptic man’s ear, the killing of a Coptic student in a classroom in the presence of his form teacher, and the murder of an elderly lady leaving church.”
One of the consequences of the rise of Christian persecution in the Middle East is an increase in emigration, the implications of which affect society as a whole.
“If the current trend of large scale Coptic emigration continues,” she said, “the losses for religious diversity on a regional and national level will be immense.”
Coptic Christians in particular “have played a critical role in sharing with other ancient Churches in the region the role of preserving a heritage that goes back centuries and of contributing to platforms forged to discuss and solve problems facing Christians in the region. If the presence of the largest Christian community in the region weakens, this would make some Christians living in other parts of the region question whether there is a place for them as Christians where numerically and politically they have a weaker presence.”
Religious persecution of the past
In a following panel which addressed the relationship between Christianity and freedom, Ian Christopher Levy, professor of historical theology at Providence College, delivered a paper on the theme of Tolerance and Freedom in the Age of the Inquisition.
Acknowledging that coercive tactics were applied in certain circumstances during the Inquisition, he explained that there nonetheless “remained a consistent recognition of religious freedom secured by both divine and natural law.”
“The personal exercise of that freedom could indeed be curtailed for the sake of the common good, but any such curtailment would be held to standards of due process which guaranteed the rights of Christians and non-Christians alike.”
“Recognizing that the discovery of truth was possible through rational inquiry meant, moreover, that no human being of whatever status could command absolute obedience,” he continued. “There always remained a sphere of freedom within which the individual Christian could pursue the truth. Canonists would speak of ‘natural right,’ while theologians coupled this with an ‘evangelical freedom’ that could not be infringed by any human law.”
Levy emphasized that Christians during the medieval period “recognized the fundamental rights that all these people possessed under natural law by virtue of their common human nature.”
“That recognition, however imperfectly observed, surely belongs to the larger tradition of religious freedom in the West that extends into our own day.”