Religious Liberty Around the World
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” This word of warning from Martin Luther King Jr. is of greater relevance today than ever before. For in our times religious liberty is not an option but a necessity. In our highly globalized world, where cultures are intermingled and adherents of different religions are constrained to live side by side, religious liberty is not a luxury of which we can avail ourselves or discard according to our whims and fancies, but an imperative imposed on modern society for congenial living and progress. In this connection, I would like to focus on three reflections this morning:
First, the Catholic Church believes in religious liberty, not just for the sake of convenience and harmonious living, but as a matter of principle expressed in recent magisterial teachings, especially in the document of Vatican Council II aptly entitled “Dignitatis Humanae.” Article 4 of this Declaration states clearly: “the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters, in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits.”
This claim has also been recognized by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically in article 18, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
There are two important aspects that the term ”religious freedom” presents. First and foremost, in relation to single individuals, it can more properly be called liberty of conscience or of faith or of worship. Although the term religious liberty is usually defined as the privilege of the individual to believe in the religion of his choice, it includes the freedom to change his religion or belief.
In Luke’s Gospel, we have the wonderful example of tolerance that Jesus showed to those who rejected him. Wishing to visit a Samaritan village, he sent messengers ahead of him to prepare the way, but the people did not welcome him. When his disciples James and John witnessed this, they asked: “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus rebuked them, as he refused to mix faith and power, rejecting all sorts of political messianism based on domination. His assertion of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, distinguished two jurisdictions free of any theocratic or secularist deception.
Second, there is the liberty of corporate worship, with the necessary elements of fellowship, association and organization needed for maintaining the cult, teaching, preaching and evangelization. Implied inevitably in these different aspects of religious liberty is organization, in order that they be used effectively, also in the expression of conscience in social service, and the challenge of customs and institutions that fail to bring to men real opportunities in life, and in the reasonable activities of believers for good ends throughout the community and State.
This is the freedom that enslaved Israel asked of the Egyptian Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, when Moses and Aaron went to him and said: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to Me in the desert.”
The Declaration Dignitatis Humanae “on the right of man to religious freedom has its foundation in the dignity of the person, whose exigencies have come to be more fully known to human reason through centuries of experience.” In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter makes a claim which, in fact, is the claim of all humanity: “We must obey God rather than men!” Peter’s defense before the Sanhedrin of the human conscience as the primary law, lays the foundation for the principle of religious liberty.
From this principled stand of the Catholic Church on religious liberty, my second submission follows which refers to the tragic and painful lack of religious liberty in different parts of the world today. There are many areas in the world where religious liberty is suppressed, impeded or restricted in different ways and for various reasons.
In its third report on religious liberty, which focused on the period mid-2009 to mid-2010, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that restrictions on religion increased not only in countries known for their lack of religious freedom, but also in many countries with a good record. According to this report, no less than 75% of the world’s population “lives in countries where governments, social groups or individuals restrict people’s ability to freely practice their faith.”
The restrictions take various forms. In some countries there is open persecution. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report for 2011 pointed out numerous ways in which religious liberty is impeded. At times it is the government that controls all religious practice and represses religious activity outside State-approved organizations. Moreover, members of unregistered religious groups, or those deemed by the government to threaten national security or social harmony, risk fines, property confiscations, and prison.
Some governments control most aspects of daily life, including religious activity, which is allowed only in government-operated religious “federations” or in a small number of government-approved “house churches.” In some places, homegrown revolutionaries suppress all freedoms indiscriminately. Not even members of registered faiths are safe.
In some other countries, religious minorities still suffer from targeted violence, threats and intimidation, against which they receive insufficient government protection. In other instances, governments respond inadequately and ineffectively to recurrent communal and sectarian violence. Often anti-conversion laws or blasphemy laws are routinely abused, resulting in the lengthy detention of, and sometimes violence against, religious minorities.
Other attempts to suppress religious liberty are laws which do not allow private worship, and there are instances where the government’s religious police raid home gatherings and arrest people for worshipping privately. Lengthy imprisonment and torture await those arrested for religious offenses. Other severe restrictions on religious liberty are intrusive registration criteria: the requirement that the government be informed of all financial support received from abroad, a ban on worship in private homes and the public wearing of religious garb except by religious leaders, and severe discriminatory restrictions on religious education.
In fact, in modern democratic countries there are also very subtle methods for impinging on religious liberty as, for instance, forcing nurses and doctors to participate in late-term abortions against their conscience and religious convictions, or State mandates that, regardless of any moral or religious objections, force religious organizations to pay for free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs in their employee health care plans. All these restrictions on religious liberty are not simply legal or political issues but a direct outrage on the human dignity of persons. In many places the Catholic Church, like many other Churches and minorities, is the target of direct and indirect religious persecution.
This brings us to our third and final consideration. To protect religious liberty is the need of the day and the duty of all concerned. I would like to reiterate what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in his message for the 2011 World Day of Peace. “Religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning and purpose of the person are fully understood. To deny or arbitrarily restrict this freedom is to foster a reductive vision of the human person; to eclipse the public role of religion is to create a society which is unjust, in as much as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person. It is to stifle the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the whole human family.”
The basis of a peaceful and harmonious society is respect for the human person and it demands protection of the quest of each human being for higher values and greater aspiration, which very often are embodied in religious beliefs. The pursuit to find new meaning in life, and the endeavor to live a more fully human life, to be free from structures that have created new forms of bondage, and to foster human dignity and freedom to create a more genuine communion among men and nations, is a rightful aspiration to be defended by rulers.
Since religion is a fundamental human right and has intrinsic value, governments need not, and should not, be indifferent to its value. However, the nature of that value is such that it simply cannot be realized or well served by coercive imposition. Any attempt by governments to coerce religious faith and practice will be ineffective and will be likely to prejudice people’s participation in the good of religion. For the sake of the good of religions, governments should protect individuals and religious communities from those who would coerce them in religious matters on the basis of theological objections to their beliefs and practices. The true basis of religious freedom lies in man’s endowment as a person, his dignity which is prior and superior to governments and civil laws. They do not grant it but recognize and guarantee it.
For religious liberty to be valued and upheld, it is important that the principle be ingrained in the hearts and minds of the younger generations. In article 8, Dignitatis Humanae “urges everyone, especially those who are charged with the task of educating others, to do their utmost to form men who, on the one hand, will be lovers of true freedom; men, in other words, who will come to decisions on their own judgment and in the light of truth, govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in cooperative effort.” Liberty will be at risk unless we are vigilant, for as Karl Georg Buchner says in Act One of his play Danton’s Death, “The statue of Liberty has not been cast yet, the furnace is hot, we can still burn our fingers.”
(April 19, 2013) © Innovative Media Inc.
© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2013
This item 10222 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org