Religious freedom – the path to peace: World Peace Day Message

(Source: Radio Vatican) ‘Religious freedom – the path to peace:’ that’s the title of Pope Benedict’s message for World Peace Day, celebrated by the Church on January 1st each year. Released by the Pontifical Justice and Peace Council at a press conference in the Vatican on Thursday, the message opens with a dramatic reminder of the recent attack on the Cathedral of our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, a glaring example of what happens when religious freedom is denied.
While Pope Benedict condemns religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, he also warns of what he sees as the equally dangerous threat of secularism and hostility towards religion in civil or political life. Religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike, the message states, in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the positive secularity of states.

Peter Kodwo Appiah Cardinal Turkson

Philippa Hitchen spoke with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Justice and Peace Council, to find out more about this year’s World Peace Day message…

Q: Pope Benedict has spoken at length about religious freedom on past occasions, notable during his visit to the United Nations in 2008 – is there anything strikingly new about this message?

A: I think the novelty that this message brings is probably the context and the time it’s taking place. Naturally, when he visited the UN, it was basically to do with what the UN as an institution stood for, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and he referred to that as the UN helping give a language, an ethical structure, for all nations to work by.

This time we’re just taking one of those human rights declared by the UN, Article 18, about what we refer to as religious freedom. And it has come up these days in the light of so many things happening. For example, the issue of secularism is rendered if we talk about God or religion less than tolerantly and what about religious practise and expression? All of that is increasingly being pushed into some private domain with nothing for the public arena. And without religious freedom and what it stands for, this respect for the dignity of the individual and how it gives expression to this dignity in seeking after God, after truth, and manifesting this in human relationships, if we were to circle this out of human existence, then the world would be poorer for that.
The second factor we may talk about is the incidence of religious pluralism which also comes with its slightly intolerant forms, one form of expression not being able to cope with another in a world which is increasingly making an experience of plurality of these religious expressions. Increased mobility of people is just exposing people to expressions of culture and religion which they’ve not been used to before. Instead of this opening up people to dialogue and enriching each other and seeing how together they can marshal the force of religion to do something good for humanity, rather there has been a tendency to exclusivism, and that again leading to some forms of intolerant conduct and behaviour, sometime degenerating into fundamentalist positions and persecution of other religious groups.

Q: The message says secular fundamentalism is as serious a threat as religious fundamentalism?

A: It is. It’s easier to identify religious fundamentalism because you can see where it’s coming from, from its traits. Secular fundamentalism is more difficult to deal with because it becomes a pervasive culture in which people live and that gets expressed in its forms of governance, so that imperceptibly you have governments assuming and adopting certain positions that are not so friendly to the human spirit and human growth. …..It doesn’t make the headlines like an attack in Iraq but….secular fundamentalism is also diminishing the lifestyle and the quality of life of so many people. If people need to be free and express themselves and aspire after those things which respond to their innate nature and character and are afraid or embarrassed to do this in public, then you have people living in a psychotic type of life style.

Some states are describing themselves as religious states – if it were possible to talk about the ‘Catholic republic of Ghana’, for example, then it would mean right away you kind of identify as citizens only those who are Catholics and if you are happy to have non-Catholics there, they’d be citizens of second class. That’s what happens with all these state religions, that’s a subtle form of persecution.

Q: This message is addressed to all people of good will, but it’s a direct challenge to government leaders and legislators, isn’t it?

It is – you look at the title religious freedom and the tendency is to think this is just about faith or religion. But if religious freedom is recognised as a response to basic expression of a personal dignity of individuals, then it doesn’t just refer to those who kneel in church and pray, but a basic expression of the human spirit ultimately is the longing of the spirit for what is true about its relationship with other people and with God.….We go on from there to realise this is rooted in the fact of our creation in God and that relationship gets expressed in religious terms ….but it’s very positive for all people because it leads to the construction of a decent social order which ultimately makes for the good of humanity – that’s what this message is all about.

Q: The message defends the rights of people to change their religion or not hold any beliefs at all?

A: This is a very subtle aspect of this subject matter. When we talk about religious freedom we recognise the UN came up with this in Article 18, freedom of conscience means to believe or to change or whatever. When, however, in the Catholic church we talk about religious freedom, we don’t talk so much about being able to chose between A and B, …but it is first and foremost this basic innate longing of a person to seek for the truth – that for us is the basic sense of religious freedom and when you have this, the truth is won. So true religious freedom is an aspiration after the absolute truth, not a choice between A and B because they are equally good.
One can change from a lower appreciation of truth to a higher appreciation… not all truth is saving…so the missionary church has to offer a truth which saves…that’s how the Catholic teaching on religious freedom ‘perfects’, if we may use that expression, the formulation of this in the UN declaration.

Q: But the message also underlines the importance of dialogue with other religions on this issue?

A: The message recognises the different pursuits of truth can bring us all to bring our resources to work for the common good…the different pursuits of dialogue with non Christians and with other Christians all have this as their objective. From our different religious perspectives we can come together to address common issues, the environment or whatever

Q: So dialogue should be focused more on cooperation for common concerns than theological enquiry?

A: Sometimes clarifying certain theological issues open the way wider to be able to bring together these resources…sometimes skewered perceptions keep us apart, prejudices are there and they sometimes keep us apart

Q: The theme of this message is announced in July but it opens with this very timely example of the attack in Iraq?

A: What happened in Iraq has pushed strongly to the forefront the very many other circumstances we’ve been witnessing around the world. You’ve heard of cases in Nigeria, you had cases in southern Sudan, the ongoing battle, the case in the Balkans – different religious clashes have always been there, but that of Iraq as it were, holds up the tent and says ‘look, that’s the naked face of this religious intolerance and how it can lead us to be really murderous and give vent to the worst sentiments within us’.

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