VATICAN CITY — Infringements on the freedom of religion threaten peace and security worldwide, Pope Benedict said in his message for World Peace Day.
Restrictions on religious freedom also stifle authentic human growth and development, the pope said in the message released at the Vatican Dec. 16.
“Religious freedom is an authentic weapon of peace,” which fosters the human qualities and potentials that “can change the world and make it better,” he said.
World Peace Day is marked on Jan. 1. Vatican ambassadors delivered Pope Benedict’s message to world leaders.
The message, titled Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace, made special mention of the “theatre of violence and strife” in Iraq and the deadly attack on a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad Oct. 31.
The pope said it is in the context of widespread violence, persecution, intolerance and discrimination against people of faith that he decided to dedicate the peace day message to the fundamental importance of religious freedom.
“At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith,” citing specifically the Christian communities in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and “especially in the Holy Land,” said the pope.
During a presentation of the message to the press, Msgr. Anthony Frontiero, an official at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that of all the people “who are discriminated against, hurt, killed or persecuted for religious reasons, 75 per cent worldwide are Christian.”
The statistic came from a spokesperson from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life during a conference hosted by the European Parliament in November.
“A conservative estimate of the number of Christians killed for their faith each year is somewhere around 150,000,” Frontiero said quoting an article published Dec. 4 by the online news site of the Toronto Star.
“Virtually every human rights group and Western government agency that monitors the plight of Christians worldwide arrives at more or less the same conclusion: Between 200 million and 230 million of them face daily threats of murder, beating, imprisonment and torture, and a further 350 to 400 million encounter discrimination in areas such as jobs and housing,” the monsignor quoted from the news article.
In his message, the pope said the fact that Christians must live in fear because of their faith “is unacceptable, since it represents an insult to God and to human dignity.”
“Furthermore, it is a threat to security and peace, and an obstacle to the achievement of authentic and integral human development,” he said.
The pope also warned against “more sophisticated forms of hostility to religion.” In Western countries, such hostility is often expressed by a denial of their Christian roots and the rejection of religious symbols, “which reflect the identity and the culture of the majority of citizens.”
Civil society must acknowledge and make room for the right of believers to have their voice heard in the public realm, he said.
“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,” Pope Benedict said.
The pope urged societies to strike a careful balance between the unjust extremes of religious fundamentalism on one hand and a secularist, total exclusion of God on the other.
Because religion is not “a creation of the state, it cannot be manipulated by the state.” Rather, he said, the state has a duty to acknowledge and respect religion.
In societies that reject God and the expression of religious values in the public realm, there is a risk of “falling under the sway of idols,” relative interests and pseudo-values, the pope said. Such societies are vulnerable to political and ideological totalitarianism.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the justice and peace council, told reporters that “religious freedom is not considered a human right just because the Universal Declaration (of Human Rights) affirms it.”
Religious freedom is derived from natural law and the dignity of the person who is made up of body and spirit, he said.
The pope ended his message with a plea to Western countries to end their “hostility and prejudice against Christians.” He also urged Europe to become reconciled with its Christian roots, which are indispensable for promoting justice, harmony and peace.