Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Remarks at the Event Entitled
“Countering Terrorism and Other Acts of Violence
Based on Religion or Belief: Fostering Tolerance and Inclusivity”
UN Headquarters Conference Room 1, June 24, 2019
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists, Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Holy See is pleased to join the Permanent Missions of Pakistan and Turkey as well as the UN Office of Counter Terrorism to sponsor this afternoon’s event on the practical steps necessary to counter terrorism and other acts of violence against religious believers for their beliefs by fostering a culture of tolerance and inclusivity.
We have all been horrified at the recent attacks against Jews in Pittsburgh, Poway and Paris, against Muslims in Christchurch, Queens, Quebec City, and London, against Christians in Sri Lanka, in the Sahel, in some regions of Nigeria, in Iraq and Syria. We know that there are likewise many documented cases of attacks against other religious believers. The fact that many of these acts of violence have been perpetrated against believers as they gather to pray in their houses of worship make them particularly villainous: havens of peace and serenity quickly become execution chambers, as defenseless children, men, and women lose their lives simply for coming together to practice their religion.
Many of these attacks are finally receiving the attention, condemnation and committed response they deserve. It is a big step in the right direction that the international community is calling attention to these attacks on religious believers, places of worship and other religious sites through General Assembly Resolution 73/285, the recently proposed UN Plan of Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites, and other mechanisms. At the same time, even the best international instruments are not enough. There is a need to focus on the responsibility and actions of States to protect all of their citizens equally as well as to address with vigor the cultural factors necessary to promote tolerance and inclusivity.
I will list, briefly, seven things I think are important.
First, tolerance and inclusivity are achieved through a robust promotion of the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Failure to respect and ensure freedom of conscience, religion and belief fosters an environment in which believers’ other rights, including their right to life, are more easily violated.
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. Other reports, such as that of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the 2018 Report on Religious Freedom in the World by Aid to the Church in Need, corroborate these findings. In addition to growing violations of religious freedom from States through legislation, these reports point to bureaucratic harassment and administrative burdens with regard to building houses of worship and schools, discriminatory structures in family law and education, and even mass atrocities, killings and rape perpetrated based on hatred on the beliefs or religions of the victims. These reports have also documented increasingly aggressive forms of nationalism hostile to religious minorities that have led to systemic stigmatization and intimidation of religious minority groups. Protecting the right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief, therefore, is an essential first step in countering terrorism and other acts of violence against religious believers and in promoting a culture of tolerance and inclusion.
A second step is guaranteeing the equality of all citizens before the law, regardless of their religious or ethnic identity, as a basic demand of justice. 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 maintain harmonious and fruitful coexistence among individuals and communities.
The third step is a positive and respectful separation of religion and State. These two spheres ought to collaborate according to their specific competencies for the good of all citizens, but they should not be confused or conflated, because, as Pope Francis said in a 2017 speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, in those circumstances “religion risks being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers that in fact exploit it.”
A fourth step is to appeal to all political, social and religious leaders to condemn the use of religion to incite hatred and violence or to justify acts of oppression, exile, murder or terrorism. To be effective and not alienate, this appeal must simultaneously ensure that religions themselves not be blamed for homicidal madness, but rather the blame remain with those who misinterpret or manipulate religious belief to commit evil, supposedly in God’s name, for political or ideological purposes.
A fifth point is to ensure we leave none of the victims of anti-religious violence behind. The Holy See is grateful that in Resolution 73/285, the General Assembly condemned “all terrorist attacks against places of worship that are motivated by religious hatred, including Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and Christianophobia.” That was the first time in a UN resolution that attacks against Christians were explicitly mentioned alongside those against Muslims and Jews. In many statements of senior UN officials, however, not to mention national leaders and media outlets, attacks against Christians remain unacknowledged or novel euphemisms are employed to avoid mentioning the specifically anti-Christian nature of the violence, like calling the recent victims in Sri Lanka “Easter Worshippers.” To confront the evil of terrorism and acts of violence against religious believers, we have to have the courage and candor to call things by their proper names.
Sixth, a real commitment to intercultural and interreligious dialogue is necessary. In their landmark document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed February 4 in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, underlined that interreligious and intercultural dialogue is essential to catalyzing the path to mutual understanding, tolerance, acceptance of others, cooperation and peaceful living together. When Pope Francis visited the Grand Imam el-Tayeb at Al-Azhar University two years earlier, he emphasized, “Religion is not a problem but a part of the solution.” Therefore, effective interreligious dialogue must be vigorously promoted and supported by all States, including secular ones.
My seventh and last point is about the need for effective education. Society reaps what it sows. It is essential that teaching in schools, pulpits and through the internet do not foment intransigence and extremist radicalization but trains students dialogue, reverence for the dignity of others, reconciliation, justice, and respect for the rule of law. The importance of forming the head and the heart cannot be overstated, since proper education gives people, especially the young, the ability critically to assess the destructive narratives and appeals of demagogues, as well as the confidence to proclaim and live as citizens a different and constructive message.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we all know, countering terrorism and other acts of violence against religious believers and fostering tolerance and inclusivity will not be accomplished easily and quickly, but will require great patience, perseverance, wisdom, courage and leadership. I thank the Missions of Pakistan and Turkey, as well as the UN Office of Counterterrorism, for their leadership in convening today’s event, as well as all of you who have come to participate. I hope we will all become part of the short- and long-term solution.
Thank you very much.