Catholic leaders highlight faith siege in East and West

(Photo: Ecumenical News / Peter Kenny)Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's diplomatic representative to the United Nations, delivers an address at the interreligious service to pray for peace at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva on January 21, 2013.

Mainstream Christian leaders seldom like to admit their faith may be under siege.

Yet events and statements during the past week show that where Christians are minorities and also where they have been in the majority there is great concern about violations of their freedom to believe and worship.

Places where there freedoms are threatened seem not only where Christians are a minority faith where a majority religion discriminates against others, but also in country's espousing tolerance.

In particular, two statements by Vatican officials at international conferences have highlighted the concerns of the Roman Catholic Church, representing 1.3 billion Christians, and which also has representation on several international bodies.

One warning was made in Albania, about which on May 6 the World Council of Churches expressed concern at the results of its 2011 census. The WCC said it had implications for the rights of religious minorities and religious freedoms guaranteed in the [dominantly Muslim] country's constitution.

A statement from the Holy See made in Albania said that prejudice against Christianity is growing in Europe of all places, often under the guise of "tolerance."

"Intolerance in the name of 'tolerance' must be named for what it is and publicly condemned," said Bishop Mario Toso, the Vatican's Secretary for Justice and Peace. "To deny religiously informed moral argument a place in the public square is intolerant and anti-democratic."


That statement was delivered at the High Level Conference on Tolerance and Non-discrimination held in Albania on May 21-22, where Toso said, "Where there might be a clash of rights, religious freedom must never be regarded as inferior."

The gathering was convened under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Holy See representative charged that in Europe, there is "a sharp dividing line has been drawn between religious belief and religious practice."

He noted that due to this distinction, Christians are told, "that they can believe whatever they like in their own homes or heads, and largely worship as they wish in their own private churches, but they simply cannot act on those beliefs in public.

"This is a deliberate twisting and limiting of what religious freedom actually means, and it is not the freedom that was enshrined in international documents," stated Bishop Toso.

He cited restrictions on Christian speech and conscience that "can become the grounds of a criminal complaint, or at least intolerance, in many European countries."

The bishop warned that discrimination against Christians is as great a threat to society as anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia and he noted an increase in vandalism and acts of violence against Christians and Christian institutions.

It was, he said "remarkable" that in the 21st Century, Christians are faced with having to "abandon their faith and act against their conscience, or resist and face losing their livelihood."


The Holy See representative asked that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe work to "guarantee that intolerance and discrimination against Christians is ended," urging the promotion of authentic religious freedom.

"The right to believe in God and to practice that belief is a fundamental human right."

In the same week as the two Holy See statements, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights rejected the appeals of three British Christians in a case of supposed discrimination.

Proponents of the three Christians had hoped the case being heard by the final arbiter on human rights in the super-national system would draw a line in the sand against what they see as politically correct targeting of persons of Christian faith.

Andrea Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, the organization, which represents McFarlane and Chaplin, had said to the British newspaper The Telegraph in April that this case would throw down the gauntlet on whether Britain would allow religious persecution.

"These are cases where the only victims were the Christians trying to live out their faith in the workplace but who were driven out for doing so," Williams said.

Then, during a presentation at a U.N. conference in Geneva this week, the Vatican envoy to the United Nations in Geneva said "credible research" has found "shocking" data that an ""more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith every year."

Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations said at the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council Interactive Dialogue on May 27, that the Vatican is "deeply concerned" over increasing violations of religious freedom.

Tomasi pointed to systematic attacks on Christian communities in regions of the world such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and the increasing marginalization of Christians in Western societies.

"The serious violations of the right to freedom of religion in general and the recent continuing discrimination and systematic attacks inflicted on some Christian communities in particular, deeply concern the Holy See and many democratic governments whose population embrace various religious and cultural traditions," said Tomasi.

An Italian cleric with a PhD from New York's Fordham University, Tomasi cited the forced displacement, the destruction of their places of worship, rape, and the abduction of Christian and other leaders.

He also referred to kidnapping just over one month ago of the Orthodox bishops from Aleppo in Sryia.

The two were abducted in April by armed men while they were travelling to Aleppo from Antioch, a Turkish town on the Syrian border where they were carrying out humanitarian work.

"Several of these acts have been perpetrated in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the fruit of bigotry, intolerance, terrorism and some exclusionary laws," said Archbishop Tomasi.


The archbishop told the U.N. Human Rights Council that while Western countries continue to benefit from the social contributions of the Catholic Church, marginalization of religious principles in public life is restricting the ability of Christians and other faiths to carry out educational and charitable works.

"In some Western countries where historically the Christian presence has been an integral part of society, a trend emerges that tends to marginalize Christianity in public life, ignore historic and social contributions and even restrict the ability of faith communities to carry out social charitable services," Archbishop Tomasi said.

He noted that that Human Rights Council has recognized that "religion, spirituality and belief may and can contribute to the promotion of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person."

The Christian religion, he said, as other faith communities, is "at the service of the true good of humanity."

"In fact, Christian communities, with their patrimony of values and principles, have contributed much to making individuals and peoples aware of their identity and their dignity."

Archbishop Tomasi identified educational endeavors run by the Catholic Church, from kindergartens to universities, which are comprised of well over 200,000 schools educating more than 60 million students worldwide.

"The Church's worldwide charity and healthcare centers include 5,305 hospitals; 18,179 dispensaries; 547 Care Homes for people with Leprosy; 17,223 homes for the elderly, or the chronically ill or people with a disability; 9,882 orphanages; 11,379 crèches; 15,327 marriage counseling services; 34,331 social rehabilitation centers and 9,391 other charitable institutions."

"To such data about social action activity," he further said, "there should be added the assistance services carried out in refugee camps and to internally displaced people and the accompaniment of these uprooted persons.

Tomasi ended by citing the words of Pope Francis on May 16 regarding the celebration of the 17th centennial anniversary of the Edict of Milan, a proclamation that "opened the way to religious freedom."

The Pope expressed the desire that "civil authorities everywhere respect the right to publicly express one's faith and to accept without prejudice the contribution that Christianity continues to offer to the culture and society of our time."

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