The following are edited extracts from Cardinal Timothy Dolan's address at an International Religious Freedom Symposium on 12 September 2012, at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. Cardinal Dolan is Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
According to the International Society for Human Rights, 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith every year, meaning we have seventeen new martyrs every hour of every day.
This gathering of bishops, religious leaders, policy analysts, academics, public officials, media professionals, and people of goodwill highlights the need to defend vigorously religious freedom throughout the world.
Can any of us, brother bishops, forget when, last June 13 at our meeting in Atlanta, Bishop Shleman Warduni of Iraq implored us not to forget the Christians in his homeland? "We beg you to help. We want only peace, security, freedom ... please no more deaths, no more explosions, no more injustice."
Today our focus is on threats to international religious freedom, but there are also serious challenges to religious freedom within our own nation, serious problems the Church faces in her life and mission in the United States - threats that could marginalise the Church and her educational, charitable and health care institutions.
As grave as these challenges remain, they are of a different order from those faced by Christians and others of faith in many countries.
Not only is it morally imperative, consonant with the urgent gospel demands of justice and charity, for us as Catholics to be prophetic leaders in defending our co-religionists around the world who are today being "thrown to the lions," but it is strategically necessary, as our own laudable efforts to defend our "first and most cherished freedom" here at home, are hollow and hypocritical if not coupled with a ringing solicitude for those under more overtly violent attack throughout the world.
A Catholic News Service headline last March was depressing and all too familiar: "Car bomb explodes outside Nigerian church. 10 die in blast, violence." This assault, which occurred at Saint Finbar's Catholic Church, followed a similar attack two weeks before at the Church of Christ compound, which killed three people and wounded 38 others, and Christmas Day attacks that saw more than 32 martyred for their faith at Catholic churches as they gathered to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
I was especially saddened by this report because the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria, where this violence happened, Ignatius Kaigama, the President of the Nigerian Bishops' Conference, is a cherished friend of mine. He is one of the gentlest, wisest, most conciliatory men I know, and has been a bold leader in calling for calm, non-violence, and religious freedom for all. In our calls and communications, I can sense his deep anxiety as he daily watches his Catholic flock under attack, and as his own life is in peril.
Muslim majority nations
Of course, it's not just happening in Nigeria. Christians are being persecuted and killed at an alarming rate in many Muslim-majority nations. The 2012 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom notes that in Egypt there is "a climate of impunity in the face of repeated attacks against Coptic Christians and their Churches."
In Eritrea there are "an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 religious prisoners and reports of torture and other inhumane treatment" of these prisoners. In Iran the theocratic government has targeted "Baha'is, as well as Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sufi Muslims."
This violence and persecution is leading to a massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East. Thousands upon thousands are leaving - usually forced out of - countries where Christianity has not only flourished, but in many cases where it first took root 2,000 years ago. These Christian families want to stay in the ancient lands of their birth, but too often make the difficult decision to leave as a result of harassment or violent threats by extremists.
As many Muslims and Jews will tell you, this is not good for the region. Christians are indigenous to the Middle East and been there longer than the Islamic community. They contribute to the common good and their presence enriches diversity and tolerance, and beyond tolerance, respect. Their presence is good for all of the people of the Middle East.
The epicentre of violence against Christians may be the Middle East, but tragically it is not confined there. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that in Vietnam last year "there were marked increases in arrests, detentions, and harassment of groups and individuals viewed as hostile to the Communist Party, including violence aimed at peaceful ethnic minority gatherings and Catholics protesting land confiscations and harassment. ... Father Nguyes Van Ly [a Catholic priest engaged in human rights work] was returned to prison after being given a one-year medical parole."
Although there has been no large-scale violence since 2008, in India "intimidation, harassment, and occasional small-scale violence against members of religious minority groups continue[s], particularly against Christians in states with anti-conversion laws," prejudice I saw personally on a visit to Orissa.
In China, "[r]eligious freedom conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims remain particularly acute, as the government broaden[s] its efforts to discredit and imprison religious leaders, control the selection of clergy, ban certain religious gatherings, and control the distribution of religious literature. ... The [Chinese] government [has] also detained hundreds of unregistered Protestants in the past year and stepped up efforts to shutter illegal meeting points and public worship activities. Dozens of unregistered Catholic clergy remain in detention or have disappeared. ..."
The lessons we glean from these situations have broader application for people of various religious traditions in a host of other countries. Sadly, religious intolerance and persecution are largely "equal opportunity" crimes against the human family.
All religious traditions experience religious discrimination and violence, especially when they are in the minority of a population. However, our experience as Catholics and Christians is especially relevant and timely.
Pope Benedict XVI makes an observation clearly validated by objective studies: "At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith. Many Christians experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ and their heart-felt plea for respect for religious freedom. This situation 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."
This animosity against Christians is so rampant that it now has a name: Christophobia.
Our faith in the creator in whose image we are made is both personal and social. It finds expression in both freedom of religion and conscience, and in the freedom of believers to act together in the public arena, establishing, not only temples, synagogues, mosques, and churches, but also faith-based institutions to serve the common good through educational, social and medical services, and participating actively in public conversations to form societies more respectful of human life and dignity.
Ecumenism of martyrs
Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, not long ago delivered a profound reflection on "Christian Unity and Love of the Poor" in which he said, "God ... takes sides. ... [I]n a world dominated by injustice, suffering and poverty, the love of God for justice takes the concrete form of a preference for the poor and the suffering."
Cardinal Koch went on to speak of an "ecumenism of the martyrs," proposing that the shared Christian experience of martyrdom today, which crosses denominational boundaries, promotes Christian amity and unites Christians in "publicly denouncing the situations of martyrdom and committing ourselves in favour of respect for religious liberty and human dignity."
I believe the "ecumenism of the martyrs" does something else as well. It serves not only Christian unity, but the oneness of the whole human family. The suffering of Christians in many countries around the world is a warning sign that the religious freedom and fundamental human rights of all peoples are at risk. The blood of the martyrs is a cardinal-red signal warning that persecution and intolerance is now epidemic.
Religious freedom is a value in its own right because it frees up individuals and communities to pursue ultimate truth. For Christians, this truth is found in the Person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, religious freedom is related to other essential human rights, including the freedoms of speech, association and assembly.
It is no accident that efforts to promote religious freedom have accompanied efforts to develop democratic institutions. The history of our own nation attests to this fact. As Pope Benedict XVI states, "When religious freedom is acknowledged, the dignity of the human person is respected at its root, and the ethos and institutions of people are strengthened."
Religious freedom, as the foundational first freedom, contributes in a profound way to peace, justice, the rule of law, and the development of democracy.
This reality is powerfully symbolised by two leaders who were assassinated within two months of each other in Pakistan last year. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, and Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, were the Pakistani Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, and the Governor of Punjab Province, respectively. Both were assassinated for their opposition to harsh Pakistani blasphemy laws that have been used to abuse the rights of Christians and other minorities.
Shahbaz Bhatti, whom my friend [US Catholic author and journalist] John Allen urges be immediately canonised by the Church as a martyr, had visited the staff of our Conference of Bishops on more than one occasion. I am told he was a man of uncommon courage and conviction, keenly aware of the threats to his life resulting from his human rights work.
The community of nations owes a debt of gratitude to all the "martyrs" for religious freedom. Their sufferings have sounded the alarm for the entire human family. As Saint Paul writes of the Church, "If [one] part [of the body] suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy."
Widespread persecution today calls us to action on behalf of the entire human family. Our Conference of Bishops, and many other religious bodies in our nation, are well placed and well equipped to take up this task.
As citizens of a powerful democracy, we have a special responsibility to promote the religious freedom of our brothers and sisters in all nations and of all religious traditions.
Many Catholic bishops' conferences around the world have looked to our own Conference to bring before our government the distressing difficulties they are facing. In some places Catholics suffer outright persecution; in others they face discrimination in education, employment, and access to public services. Some countries prohibit public and even private worship; others restrict being able to live the faith by providing educational, health and social services to the broader population; still others curtail participation in the public square.
For decades, our Committee on International Justice and Peace has brought these concerns to Congress and various US Administrations. We have insisted that our public officials urge other governments to uphold human rights and protect the religious freedom of all citizens. Our Conference of Bishops was instrumental in the successful passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. This legislation sought to make religious freedom a central feature of US foreign policy.
However, our nation and world are not where we need to be in terms of protecting and promoting religious freedom in the many places where it is threatened. Policy makers need to place greater priority on religious freedom in foreign policy discussions and decisions. Catholics, especially, need to become better informed of the systematic challenges to the fundamental right of religious freedom in far too many countries.
Religious freedom is an imperative for peace and the common good of the whole human family.