Pope John Paul II's missionary prayer intention June 2004: “That religious freedom - a fundamental right of humankind - may meet with ever growing respect in Asian countries.” Comment by Archbishop Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Agra, India

Friday, 28 May 2004

Vatican City (Fides Service) - The world committed itself to the promotion of Human Rights with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. For many this was a target to be achieved and an ideal to be realized. Over fifty years have passed since this Universal Declaration. Its influence has been felt in different fields, not the least of which are the Constitutions of different countries born after the Declaration. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this Declaration, numerous celebrations were held in different parts of the world which brought into sharp focus the reality that while there has been great progress in this field, there are many areas of the world where human rights have not been given importance and where these rights have been trampled upon.
Our Holy Father Pope John Paul II has consistently been an impassioned champion for the protection of human rights. Already in his very first Encyclical Redemptor Hominus (4/3/79), the Pope spoke of the basis for human rights.
However human rights cannot be said to be fully protected unless there is true religious freedom. More than once Pope John Paul II has spoken on this matter. In his message for the World Day of Peace in 1999, while speaking on the respect for human rights as the secret for true peace, the Holy Father elaborates on religious freedom. “Religion expresses the deepest aspiration of a human person, shapes people’s vision of the world, and affects their relationships with others. Basically, it offers the answer to the questions about the true meaning of life, both personal and communal. Religious freedom therefore constitutes the very heart of human rights. Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognized as having the right even to change their religion if their conscience so demands. People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it. Precisely for this reason no one can be compelled to accept a particular religion whatever the circumstances or motives” (no. 5).
In Asia, the focus of the Holy Father’s Missionary Intention for June, one sees a mixture of respect for human rights. Amnesty International has a number of Asian countries on its list of Nations needing special attention because of their human rights’ records. A variety of reasons are responsible for this: in some places a military rule which tramples on the rights of the citizen; elsewhere, totalitarian regimes which put the State above the individual, whose rights are absorbed in those of the Government; in other places fundamentalist religious groups which control the Government and curtail religious rights of those of other beliefs. Besides some Asian countries have not yet accepted the theory of the separation between the State and Religion, and hence the dominant religion has special privileges while denying these same rights to others. Asia is thus a vast and varied Continent with a variety of situations. At one end of the spectrum, we find the “liberal democracies” which exhibit a high degree of religious tolerance and allow the individual citizen freedom to practise and propagate his/her religion.
At the other end of the spectrum, we would find countries which in practice deny religious freedom; (even though in law they may recognize this right). Every aspect of religious life is controlled by the Government; permission is needed to train clergy, hold conventions, promote, transfer or assign clergy. Under the umbrella of the so-called “Patriotic Organizations”, religion is under Government control. Any observable religious activity outside the ambit of the patriotic associations is discouraged or punished.
Close to this end of the spectrum are countries which have a particular religion as the ‘State’ religion. A religious law is the law of the land, and is applied to all. This has at times given rise to abuses, as for example, the “blasphemy cases”.
A specially interesting phenomenon arises in some countries in which some federal states have brought in legislation that de facto infringes on the right to religious freedom. These laws entitled “Freedom of Religion Acts” while officially banning religious conversions by force, fraud or allurement, put a heavy burden on the person wanting to convert and the religious minister involved, such as prior permission from civil authorities, a sworn affidavit of a genuine intention to convert etc. Often it is the application at the grassroots level that raises problems. Minor officials often use this as an occasion to harass people, to settle old scores, create difficulties for the Church, with Government facilities some times denied on the basis of conversion etc.
Appropriate here would be a reflection on Mathew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. Jesus foretold that His followers would have to face opposition and persecution. Hence even while the Church prays and works for a growing acceptance of religious freedom as a human right everywhere in Asia, she is not taken aback with obstacles or with cases of lack of religious freedom; on the contrary, with the eyes of faith that befit an Easter people, the Church accepts the blessings that come for Christians through these obstacles and harassments. The Church can never forget that “the blood of Martyrs is the seed of Christianity”.
With a greater awareness of her role in promoting social justice, the Church has been in the vanguard for the protection of human rights. It is today clear that the defence of human rights is not a merely accessory task in the Church’s mission, but part of its essential role of spreading the Gospel, humanising the world and bringing to every individual the fruits of redemption. The Church could play an important role for this in different ways:
The Church has always played a very prominent role in the field of education. Education for human rights and religious freedom must now become a priority. This education, part of its mission of Evangelization, must be more systematic, better organized and well planned, with the use also of modern means of communication. Educators and formators must realize the vital importance of education for human rights for a more humane society.
Also connected with education for human rights is the necessity of the Church boldly proclaiming her own teaching on religious freedom, as found in Vatican Documents, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Papal pronouncements. It is also necessary that the Church proclaims more forcefully her own clear stand against any conversion by force or fraud. Church documents clearly teach that such conversions are no conversions at all and that all true conversion comes only from God.
Advocacy is another big area of ministry for the Church. The Church has a moral influence that goes far beyond its numbers. Advocacy plays a great role in the modern world, influencing public opinion as also Government policy and that of international bodies which some times have a great influence in the formulation of policies for different nations. The protection of human rights, which essentially includes the promotion of religious freedom, is to be seen as an essential task for all those working in this field of Advocacy. The Church has also to be watchful, alerting people to all infringements of human rights everywhere. She could network with other groups, religious or secular, in the promotion of these human rights. Even groups with whom the Church does not agree as far as their ideology is concerned can surely collaborate with her for the promotion of human rights and religious freedom. And, of course, there is the indispensable role of prayer. Prayer has a pre-eminent role in the Church’s mission. The Church’s whole life and activity is a prayer to God, but this can never replace formal prayer, which the community sends up to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Prayer has always been the source of strength for the community. Hence, the Pope’s call to prayer for this month’s Missionary Intention is very relevant, timely, urgent and important. (Fides Service 27/5/2004 EM lines 105 Words: 1,383)