Real religious freedom
Christian hegemony over the centuries may well have clouded perceptions, especially in the West, about the incidence of religious freedom, to a point where attacks on Christians are sometimes ignored or otherwise regarded as insignificant.
In traditionally Christian societies, especially those which are rapidly secularising, Christian sensitivities are often casually disregarded, or relegated to belonging to an agenda which merits no voice in the public discourse. Religious faith, and all perspectives that flow from it, are increasingly expected to occupy the private domain.
In some ways, this regrettable mindset is a consequence of the churches in the past exercising greater influence on public affairs than many felt was their due. The antipathy which the Church in Ireland is encountering now is due not only to the shock of the abuse scandal, but also to the massive influence it previously wielded in shaping public policy, despite being an unelected body. The distinction between religious and temporal spheres was not always recognised.
So to outsiders it may seem exaggerated when the Catholic Church in the United States speaks of its religious liberties being attacked by the proposed provisions in President Barack Obama’s health policy which could force some Catholic employers to pay for birth control, including abortifacients, and voluntary sterilisations.
For many people, this issue might not be a big deal, but it does cut to the inalienable right to freedom of conscience, an absolute mainstay of all religious liberty. Remove the element of conscience, and the freedom to religion is profoundly compromised.
Religious freedom extends well beyond the ability to subscribe to a creed and worship in peace. It requires that the government cannot compel individuals (or, for that matter, religious bodies) to violate the teachings of their faith.
Of course, for many Christians, even the basic threshold of religious liberty—the freedom to choose one’s religious faith and access to worship—cannot be taken for granted.
The strict measures against non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, where expressions of Christian faith can lead to imprisonment, are well known, as are the recent attacks on Christians in Egypt and northern Nigeria. Less known are the dangers faced, for example, by Catholics in China who wish to exercise their faith in full communion with Rome, and not with the regime. Nor does the appalling discrimination of Christians in Pakistan attract much attention.
It should alarm the international community that, according to Vatican statistics, attacks on Christians in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia increased by 309% between 2003 and 2010.
In discussion of the crisis in Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been in battle with rebels for more than a year, the potential plight of the country’s Christians, who constitute 10% of the population, is often overlooked. Syria’s Christians fear that the fall of the Assad regime, which they acknowledge to be a political tyranny, will lead to an Islamic theocracy that might emasculate the country’s ancient Christian community.
There is an acute precedent for that. As is the case in Assad’s Syria, the Christians of Iraq enjoyed significant religious freedoms under the otherwise monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein. After Saddam’s fall, Christians came under attack from Islamic fundamentalists—and in many cases their neighbours, with whom they had coexisted peacefully, exploited anti-Christian sentiments to appropriate their properties and possessions.
Many Iraqi Christians fled to Syria where they now live in fear of reliving the trauma of their persecution if the Assad regime be toppled.
The future of Syria remains unclear. The recent victory of Assad’s forces in the rebel stronghold of Homs suggests that the regime is safe, for now. However, international pressure will not abate, and some form of negotiated solution seems likely, and necessary. Should such negotiations proceed, the rights of minorities must feature high on the agenda.
Archbishop Silvano Tomsasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations agencies in Geneva, put the challenge to the international community when he said it must work “to sustain mutual tolerance and respect of human rights and a greater equality among citizens of different religions in order to achieve a healthy democracy where the public role of religion and the distinction between religious and temporal spheres are recognised”.