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Secularism and fundamentalist intolerance are equal threats to religious freedom, Pope says

Catholic World News - December 16, 2010

In his annual message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI concentrates on the crucial importance of religious freedom, and argues that militant secularism can be as dangerous to religious freedom as sectarian intolerance.

The Church marks the World Day of Peace on January 1, the feast of the Mother of God. The Vatican released the Pope’s message for the upcoming observance on December 16, with a press conference chaired by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The papal message—which was made available in French, English, German, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish as well as Italian translation-- is entitled “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace.”

The Pope opens his message with a reference to the October 31 massacre of 52 Iraqi Catholics at a parish church in Baghdad. He calls special attention to the continued campaign of violence against Iraq’s Christian minority, but observes that the persecution of Christians continues in many places around the world. “At present,” the Pope remarks, “Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith.”

While he decries the severe restrictions on religious practices that are commonplace in the Middle East, and thereby implicitly criticizes the approach taken by Islamic governments, Pope Benedict is also critical of the secularized societies that have pushed religion out of the public square, following a false ideal of secularism or individual freedom. “A freedom which is hostile or indifferent to God becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others,” the Pope writes.

“It should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity,” Pope Benedict argues. Some of the toughest language of the papal message is directed at Western democracies. He expresses the hope that “in the West, and especially in Europe, there will be an end to hostility and prejudice against Christians.”

Governments have a moral obligation to ensure the religious freedom of their people, the Pope argues. He notes that religious liberty is derived from natural law, and has claims prior to those of the state. He challenges governments by saying: “Whenever the legal system at any level, national or international, allows or tolerates religious or antireligious fanaticism, it fails in its mission, which is to protect and promote justice and the rights of all.”

In introducing the papal document, Cardinal Turkson underlined the message that religious freedom is not confined to “those who kneel in church and pray.” True religious freedom, he said, citing the Pope’s text, allows the believer to express his faith freely and openly in public and to be a full participant in the life of his society.

Cardinal Turkson told Vatican Radio that the violence against Christians in Iraq has drawn the world’s attention to a problem that lingers in many other places; he mentioned Nigeria, southern Sudan, and the Balkans. In Iraq, the cardinal said, one sees “the naked face of this religious intolerance and how it can lead us to be really murderous and give vent to the worst sentiments within us.”

Questioned about Pope Benedict’s claim that secularism is as great a threat to religious liberty as fundamentalist intolerance, Cardinal Turkson replied:

It is. It’s easier to identify religious fundamentalism because you can see where it’s coming from, from its traits. Secular fundamentalism is more difficult to deal with because it becomes a pervasive culture in which people live and that gets expressed in its forms of governance, so that imperceptibly you have governments assuming and adopting certain positions that are not so friendly to the human spirit and human growth.

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