Holy See calls for respect of religious freedom
Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic spoke to a high-level side event on Tuesday at the UN entitled “Mutual Respect and Peaceful Coexistence as a Condition of Interreligious Peace and Stability: Supporting Christians and Other Communities”.
The Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva called on participants to recognize religious freedom as a fundamental human right.
He said, “Protection is one of the key elements surrounding any debate on religious freedom as a fundamental human right because it is intrinsic to the human person.”
Archbishop Jurkovic said “a possible way forward could be represented by the universal recognition of religious freedom as a fundamental human right for every person, in every country, and respected equally by everybody.”
Opening Remarks by H.E. Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva at the High-Level Side Event: “Mutual Respect and Peaceful Coexistence as a Condition of Interreligious Peace and Stability: Supporting Christians and Other Communities”
7 March 2017
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Friends,
I am honored to take part in this High-Level discussion, among other distinguished panelists and, most especially with His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Despite so many efforts to promote and reinforce the fundamental human right of religious freedom, we are actually witnessing a continued deterioration, we might even say, an assault, of this inalienable right in many parts of the world. Religion has always been the subject of great consideration. This is evident in its regulation by domestic or international legal systems as well as in the mixed and even controversial interest elicited within the institutions of the international community. The choice of faith and the consequent belonging to a religion impact every level of life, the social and political spheres. They play a formidable role in addressing the challenges our societies go through on a daily basis. Today, moreover, religion has taken on a renewed importance due to the complex relationship between the personal choice of faith and its public expression. Due to such implications, the choice and practice of one’s faith must be free of constraints and coercion.
While the situation of religious freedom in the world is rather shocking, especially when one acknowledges the unprecedented number of cases of violence against Christians and other religious communities, there remains a strong effort to keep the spotlight on human rights violators and the perpetrators of these abuses. These efforts represent the hope that the international community will react, that it has not lost its conscience, that it has not become too cynical or, in the words of Pope Francis, succumbed to a “global indifference”.
Over the last years, millions of people have been either displaced or forced to leave their ancestral lands. Those who stay in conflict zones or areas controlled by terrorist groups live under the permanent threat of human rights violations, repression and abuses. Numerous Christian churches and ancient shrines of all religions have been destroyed. “The situation of Christians in the Middle East, a land on which they are living for centuries and have the right to remain, raises deep concerns. There are more and more reasons to fear seriously for the future of the Christian communities that have more than two thousand years of existence in this region, where Christianity has its full place, and began its long history.”  Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. 
Protection is one of the key elements surrounding any debate on religious freedom as a fundamental human right because it is intrinsic to the human person. In fact, they also serve a strategic role in evaluating and ensuring the proper attention and guarantee granted by public authorities. This interpretation reflects the process of affirmation of human rights that has characterized the history of the last few centuries, placing the human person and his/her rights at the center of legal, political, cultural and religious actions. Indeed, religious freedom raises the question of the indivisibility of human rights, which has become a guiding principle and fundamental assumption of the international law of human rights.
Religious freedom is a fundamental human right which reflects the highest dimension of human dignity, the ability to seek the truth and conform to it, recognizing a condition which is indispensable to the ability to deploy all of one’s own potentiality. Religious freedom is not only that of private belief or worship. It is the liberty to live, both privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles resulting from religious principles. This is a great challenge in the globalized world, where weak convictions also lower the general ethical level and, in the name of a false concept of tolerance, those who defend their faith end up being persecuted.
Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, alone and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious freedom by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of persons and families. Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call persons and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. Our rich religious traditions seek to offer meaning and direction, “they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and heart.”  They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights. In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without a right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.
The tendency towards globalization is good, it unites us, it can be noble. But if it pretends to make us all the same, it destroys the uniqueness of each people and each person. We live in a world subject to the “globalization of the technocratic paradigm,”  which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity. Religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where “a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such”  is a “precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity… and a path to peace in our troubled world.” 
Religious freedom, acknowledged in constitutions and laws and expressed in consistent conduct, promotes the development of relationships of mutual respect among the diverse confessions and their healthy collaboration with the State and political society, without confusion of roles and without antagonism. In place of the global clash of values, it thus becomes possible to start from a nucleus of universally shared values, of global cooperation in view of the common good. It is incomprehensible and alarming that still today discrimination and restrictions of human rights continue for the single fact that one belongs to and publicly professes an unwavering faith. It is unacceptable that real persecution is actually sustained for reasons of religious affiliation! This distorts reason, attacks peace and abuses human dignity.
In conclusion, If we intend to try to address incisively the many problematic issues and tragedies of our time, it is necessary to speak and act as brothers, in a way that all can easily recognize. This too is a way of confronting the globalization of indifference with the globalization of solidarity and fraternity. 
Looking at the whole scenario, a possible way forward could be represented by the universal recognition of religious freedom as a fundamental human right for every person, in every country, and respected equally by everybody. The failure to apply and defend this right on a universal level affects the implementation of all other human rights, as experience shows. Such a failure has precisely precipitated the overwhelming situation that we face in our world today. The challenge facing the international community, the Human Rights Council and States is a renewed commitment to what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”  Closing the gap between the ideal proposed by international instruments and the practice on the ground remains a daunting task, but there is no alternative other than to continue working in the direction of a more effective guarantee of religious freedom for all.
 Joint Statement Supporting the Human Rights of Christians and Other Communities, particularly in the Middle East 28thSession of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, 13 March 2015.
 Cfr., Pope Francis, Address to participants in the conference on “International religious freedom and the global clash of values”, June 2014.
 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium,n.256.
 Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Sì, n.106.
 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, n.255.
 Ibid., 257.
 Cfr., Pope Francis, Address to the participants in the Ecumenical Convention of Bishop-friends of the Focolare Movement, 7 November 2014.
 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.