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Right to religious freedom

The focal sentiment that inspires and directs Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the upcoming World Day of Peace, on January 1, is that religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God in whose light the identity, meaning and purpose of the person are fully understood.

“To deny or arbitrarily restrict this freedom is to foster a reductive vision of the human person; to eclipse the public role of religion is to create a society which is unjust, inasmuch as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person; it is to stifle the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the whole human family,” says the Holy Father.

The Pope implores all men and women of goodwill to renew their commitment to building a world where all are free to profess their religion or faith and to express their love of God with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their mind.

The message, themed Religious Freedom, The Path To Peace, starts with an introductory reference to the attack on Christians in Iraq. The main body of the text presents the meaning of religious freedom and the various ways in which it fashions peace and experiences of peace. The concluding reflection is on peace as a gift of God and as the work of men and women of goodwill, especially of believers.

Benedict XVI’s message invites people particularly to examine the truth of the right to religious freedom in its anthropological, ethical, juridical, political, civil and religious implications. Over and above mere tolerance, the message presents religious freedom as the marrow bone of all morality and freedom, of reciprocal respect, of peace.

The Pope sees the safeguarding of religious freedom in the present multi-cultural, multi-religious and secularised world as one of the ways to safeguard peace.

In his nine-page document, the Holy Father refers to religious freedom as “an authentic weapon of peace, with a historical and prophetic mission”. He adds: “Peace brings to full fruition the deepest qualities and potentials of the human person, the qualities which can change the world and make it better. It gives hope for a future of justice and peace, even in the face of grave injustice and material and moral poverty.”

Addressing journalists, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said religious freedom is the theme of the message not only because that subject matter is central to Catholic social doctrine but also because the experience of religious freedom, a basic vocation of man and a fundamental, inalienable and universal human right and key to peace, has come under great stress and threat.

Cardinal Turkson sees such stress and threat coming from “raging secularism, which is intolerant of God and of any form of expression of religion”, “religious fundamentalism”, “the politicisation of religion”, “the establishment of state religions” and “the growing cultural and religious pluralism that is becoming ever more present and pressing in our day”.

He emphasised that religious freedom is derived from natural law and from the dignity of the person, which are rooted in creation. The state needs to recognise it as intrinsic to the human person and his public and communitarian expressions. Recognition of religious freedom and respect for the innate dignity of every person also imply the principle of the responsibility to protect on the part of the community, society and the state.

Cardinal Turkson said religious freedom is not an unlimited right. It refers primarily to man’s freedom to respond to the truth of his nature as created by God and created for life with God without coercion or impediments. It is in this that man finds his peace and from there becomes an instrument of peace.

The cardinal added that religious freedom is not limited to the free exercise of worship. He pointed out there is a public dimension to it, which grants believers the chance of making their contribution to building the social order.

“Denying the right to profess one’s religion in public and the right to bring the truth of faith to bear upon public life has negative consequences for true development… The exercise of the right of religious freedom as a way to peace thus implies the recognition of the harmony that must exist between the two areas and forms of life: private and public, individual and community, person and society,” he said. “Accordingly, the development and the exercise of one’s religious freedom is also the task of one’s community”.

Cardinal Turkson also said that religious freedom does not imply that all religions are equal. Nor is it a reason for religious relativism or indifferentism. Religious freedom is compatible with defence of one’s religious identity against relativism, syncretism and fundamentalism, which are all abused forms of religious freedom.

“The Church’s appeals for religious freedom are not based on a claim of reciprocity, whereby one group respects the rights of others only if the latter respect their rights,” added Cardinal Turkson. “Rather, appeals for religious freedom are based on the dignity of persons.

“We respect the rights of others because it is the right thing to do, not in exchange for its equivalent or for a favour granted. At the same time, when others suffer persecution because of their faith and religious practice, we offer them compassion and solidarity.”

Bishop Mario Toso, SDB, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the message reserves the same criticism for fanaticism, fundamentalism and laicism “because they all overlook the essence of religious freedom, which is the free and common search for transcendent truth”.

“For the Church”, he said, “dialogue between followers of different religions is an important stimulus to collaborate with all religious communities for the promotion of peace. In this way – in a globalised world characterised by increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies – the great religions can represent not a problem but a resource, an important factor of unity and harmony”.

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