March 1, 2019
International Religious Freedom: A New Era for Advocacy in Response to a New Age of Challenges and Threats

Statement by H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See

At the Side Event entitled
“International Religious Freedom: A New Era for Advocacy
in Response to a New Age of Challenges and Threats”

United Nations, New York, 1 March 2019

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists, Dear Friends,
I am very happy to welcome you to this morning’s event on a new era for advocacy for international religious freedom in response to a new age of challenges and threats, which the Holy See is honored to be sponsoring together with the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
At the end of last year, the international community celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 18 of the UDHR affirmed that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and specified that “this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Later this right became part of international law in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which further specified that “no one shall be subject to coercion that would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice,” emphasized that the “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others,” and prescribed that parents have the freedom to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
Despite this robust understanding and protection of the right to religious freedom in international law, however, we have been witnessing across the globe various, severe, routine acts of intolerance, discrimination, persecution and even genocide against religious believers on account of the beliefs they hold.
There has been a steady rise in acts of violent anti-Semitism, like the people gunned down in a kosher supermarket in Paris or in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Muslims have had to endure growing intolerance, discrimination, and even persecution by some States out of islamophobia as well as attacks by from fellow Muslims who do not believe they adhere to the correct form of Islam.
Christians, according to a heralded 2017 study released by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Research Project and the Religious Freedom Institute, are the world’s “most widely targeted religious community, suffering terrible persecution globally,” even though in many quarters this persecution is ignored.
Each year there are likewise many documented cases of targeted discrimination and persecution against Hindus, Buddhists, Samaritans, Sikhs, Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ahmadis, Scientologists and others. The Yazidis, as no one needs to be reminded, suffered a genocidal attack. And in various places, atheists, too, have endured systematic discrimination and persecution in violation of their right freely to believe that there is no God and to order their life according to that conviction.
The 2018 Report of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief noted that 24 States with an official State religion impose “very high” or “high” levels of restrictions on religious practices while another 11 with “favored religions” likewise had similar “very high” or “high” restrictions.
The 2018 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom documented 28 nations wherein governments and non-state actors targeted dissenting members of majority communities and non-religious persons with severe abuses including, it stated, “genocide and other mass atrocities, killings, enslavement, rape, imprisonment, forced displacement, forced conversions, intimidation, harassment, property destruction, the marginalization of women, and bans on children participating in religious activities or education.”
Moreover, the 2018 Report on Religious Freedom in the World by Aid to the Church in Need, who have leading representatives present with us today, detailed how from June 2016 to June 2018, the situation of minority faith groups deteriorated in 18 of the 38 countries found to have significant violations of religious freedom. There was an increase in religious freedom violations from state actors. There were also increasingly aggressive forms of nationalism hostile to religious minorities that have led to increased systematic intimidation of religious minority groups as disloyal aliens dangerous to the State. There has also been, it noted, an upsurge in what the Report terms “neighborhood terrorism” throughout the world, attacks in which non-State actors target those of particular religious beliefs.
It is clear that violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion go far beyond the methodical and appalling acts of terrorism, vigilantism, killings, deportations, the rape, kidnapping and enslavement of women and children, the confiscation and destruction of property, attacks against converts and those who are alleged to have induced them, and encouraged or condoned violence. They also include anti-apostasy and anti-blasphemy legislation, bureaucratic harassment and administrative burdens with regard to building houses of worship and schools, discriminatory structures in family law and education, and stigmatization of people as unbelievers or heretics.
It must also be noted that violations against religious freedom are taking place not just in States with official or favored religions, but also in countries where an aggressively secular mind set treats religious belief as unworthy of public dialogue and the public square, seeking to reduce freedom of religion to merely “freedom of worship” — what is done in other words in private homes or houses of worship — in clear violation of the right to “manifest” one’s religion, and to mandate that children be indoctrinated in principles that effectively constitute a secularist religion, contrary to their religious beliefs.
Today we will hear much more about these and other attacks on freedom of thought, conscience and religion across the globe from our panelists.
In response to these growing challenges, there is need for a new era for advocacy and protection for religious freedom. Various governments, like Hungary and the United States, both represented on our panel, as well as civil society organizations, like the Religious Freedom Institute, whose president is here with us, and the various member organizations of our co-sponsor, the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion and Belief, are helping to lead that effort.
Indeed, because of the attacks the world has witnessed in recent years against various groups of religious believers, the protection of the right to religious freedom must be one of the most urgent responsibilities of the international community.
The protection given must extend beyond merely preventing the intended or actual annihilation of religious minorities. It must include examining and addressing the root causes of discrimination and persecution against them and spur the vigorous defence and protection of the rights enshrined in the UDHR and the ICCPR.
On February 4 in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar University, one of the leading figures in Sunni Islam, signed a landmark joint Declaration on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together that addresses many aspects of our theme today. They attempt to address the topic of where attacks on religious freedom originate and what must be done to defend against those attacks. It gives light, I think, not only for religious believers of their two traditions, but for believers in general and for the international community.
They forcefully addressed, first, the attacks on religious freedom that come from the “hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism” that originate in a “deviation from religious teachings,” and lead to “political manipulation of religions and … interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done,” they said, ‘for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted.” They therefore made a passionate appeal to “all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.” God did not, they affirmed, “create men and women to be killed or to fight one another, nor to be tortured or humiliated in their lives and circumstances,” and underlined that God “does not want His name to be used to terrorize people.”
They also addressed the dangers that come to religious freedom in secular societies. These derive from “a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles.” This anthropological materialism, they imply, undermines human dignity, by ignoring the human person’s spiritual nature, and eventually leads to a practical atheism that fails to acknowledge, value, advocate and defend for the person’s spiritual rights, including the right to conscience and to order one’s life to what one believes God has revealed.
Pope Francis and Grand Imam Al-Tayyeb then explicitly addressed the right to religious freedom and what must be done to defend and advance it.
“Freedom,” they wrote, “is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action,” and “therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.” There is, they affirmed, a “freedom to be different” that comes ultimately from God and undergirds the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.
They spoke about the protection of places of worship as a direct consequence of the defense of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Addressing both governments as well as believers, they underlined, “The protection of places of worship – synagogues, churches and mosques – is a duty guaranteed by religions, human values, laws and international agreements. Every attempt to attack places of worship or threaten them by violent assaults, bombings or destruction, is a deviation from the teachings of religions as well as a clear violation of international law.”
And, very importantly, they mutually affirmed that in order to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, there is a need to bolster the concept of the rule of law and equality before the law based on the principle of citizenship, regardless of one’s religion, race or ethnicity.
“The concept of citizenship,” they wrote, “is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice. It is therefore crucial to establish in our societies,” they continued, “the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities that engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority. Its misuse paves the way for hostility and discord; it undoes any successes and takes away the religious and civil rights of some citizens who are thus discriminated against.”
The law, they stressed, must equally and unequivocally guarantee every citizen’s human rights, among which is the right to freedom of religion. Even in places where one religion is accorded special constitutional status, the right of all citizens and religious communities to freedom of religion, equality before the law, and appropriate means for recourse when their rights are violated, must be recognized and defended in order to establish and maintain harmonious and fruitful coexistence among individuals, communities and nations.
I would urge everyone present to read the document. To make it easier to do so, I have brought copies of the Pope’s and the Grand Imam’s Declaration for everyone here because it is a substantial contribution to the overall advocacy that must be done in promotion and defense of international religious freedom today in response to a new age of challenges and threats.
Thank you once again for coming and I look forward to the interventions of our panelists.