Pope starts 2011 with theme of religious freedom

No single issue can ever define the agenda of a pontificate. But if there were a contender for 2011, there is no doubt which it would be. The issue of religious freedom dominated Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas and New Year messages, and was the subject of his Jan. 10 address to Vatican-accredited diplomats. Taken together, these speeches add up to the most extensive treatment of the question since the Second Vatican Council. 

The Vatican’s public agenda this year will be dominated by a call for religious freedom as the foundation of all core rights and liberties, a corollary to the vision of society and economy laid out in Pope Benedict’s 2007 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). The social Catholic project of that document and the call for religious freedom in the pope’s recent speeches mount a formidable challenge to both the aggressive secularism of the west and the fundamentalist Islamism on the rise in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, not to mention totalitarian states such as China. 

Defending secularity 

In Pope Benedict’s analysis, these trends mirror each other, and are fatally linked; both represent what he called in his Jan. 1 message “extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity.” He says without religious freedom — the “first” of the human rights, because it touches on our freedom to relate to God — other rights are stifled, and people are subjected to arbitrary political manipulation. 

Pope Benedict made his speeches against a darkening background, especially in the Middle East, of attacks on Christians. December brought bombings against Christians in Iraq, while in Pakistan Christians were threatened with the death penalty for alleged insults against the prophet Mohammed. On Christmas Day the pope called for religious freedom in China, where the government prevents the Vatican appointing bishops. Rome was rankled when, earlier in December, several Chinese bishops loyal to the pope had been forced to attend a “consecration” of a bishop of the state-approved Catholic Church, which is not recognized by Rome. 

His New Year’s message, titled “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace,” coincided with a brutal Islamist attack on Coptic Christians in Alexandria, Egypt, which left 23 dead and 79 wounded. In his speech to diplomats, the pope said the bombing — coming after a string of attacks in Iraq — showed “the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”  

In the same speech he urged Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy law, which he said “serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities.” His comments came just days after the murder by Islamists in Pakistan of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who had opposed the law. 

Sharp reactions 

The day after his speech, Iranian authorities announced the arrest of 70 Iranian Christians, accusing them of being “hardliners” who posed a threat to the Iranian state. 

It was clear from the vociferous reactions that Pope Benedict had tripped on some live wires. The Chinese foreign ministry accused the pope of acting like a “political” leader, and said it hoped the Vatican would “face the facts” that there was freedom of religion in China “as long as it does not run counter to the country’s laws.” In Pakistan, an influential Islamic leader, Hafiz Hussain Ahmad, said the pope should mind his own business, accusing of him of offending Pakistan’s 180 million Muslims and “hurting the sentiments of the entire Islamic world.” 

But the sharpest reaction of all was from Egypt, where the government of Hosni Mubarak recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, describing the Jan. 10 speech as “unacceptable interference in its internal affairs.” Egyptian officials claimed they were quite capable of protecting their citizens, and blamed “foreign elements” for the New Year’s Day blast. 

‘Foreign interference’ 

On Jan. 20, the Islamic University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, considered the “Vatican” of the Sunni Islamic world, decided to freeze all dialogue with the Catholic Church over what it called Pope Benedict’s repeated insults toward Islam. In a statement after a meeting with Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council, the grand imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, said, “Protection of Christians is an internal affair and should be carried out by the governments as [Christians] are their citizens like other citizens.” He added, “We reiterate our rejection of foreign interference in the internal affairs of Arab and Islamic countries under whatever pretexts.” 

Al-Azhar has twice-yearly meetings with the Vatican, and Sheik el-Tayyib is a regular participant in the annual interreligious peace gatherings organized by the Catholic movement the Community of Sant’Egidio. Known as a moderate, French-speaking liberal, and an advocate of interfaith dialogue, he is also one of the 138 signatories of an appeal by Muslims to the pope — which is why his furious reaction caught Rome by surprise. 

The explanation lies in internal Egyptian politics. Al-Azhar was following the lead of President Mubarak, who is increasingly fearful of Islamists. By their angry retorts to the pope, Mubarak and el-Tayyib — a presidential appointee — hoped to deflect Islamist feelings. 

Whatever the reasons, the reaction showed that there was little chance for now of persuading Egypt to face up to the mistreatment of its 8 million Orthodox Copts. 

What the reactions from China, Pakistan and Egypt illustrate is how hard it is for non-Christian cultures to grasp the separation of religious and political — the distinction between temporal and spiritual — which lies at the heart of religious (and indeed other) freedoms. 

Despite the lip service paid to the principle of religious freedom in some countries, the pope noted in his address to diplomats, “the life of religious communities is in fact made difficult and at times even dangerous because the legal or social order is inspired by philosophical and political systems which call for strict control, if not a monopoly, of the state over society.” 

Challenging confessional states wedded to authoritarianism is ambitious. But if the pope’s words have so far met only defensiveness, there is one item in this year’s diary which presents an opportunity to move the agenda forward: a meeting of the leaders of the world’s religions in October in Assisi, announced by Pope Benedict on Jan. 1. The meeting will commemorate the first meeting of its kind, called by Pope John Paul II in 1986, which was followed by another in 2002. 

Sheik el-Tayyib was quick to announce he will not be attending. The path to peace through religious freedom already looks long. 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.

Discrimination (sidebar)

One cannot create a sort of scale of degrees of religious intolerance. Unfortunately, such an attitude is frequently found, and it is precisely acts of discrimination against Christians which are considered less grave and less worthy of attention on the part of governments and public opinion. 

— Pope Benedict XVI, Jan. 10, 2011, address to diplomatic corps