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Pope underlines his top public priority: religious freedom (NEWS/ANALYSIS)

Pope Benedict XVI signaled that the defense of religious freedom will be the centerpiece of the Holy See’s foreign policy, in a January 10 addressing to the Vatican diplomatic corps.

The Holy Father decried violence against Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, and other countries. He also protested that many societies that profess to honor religious freedom are indifferent to “acts of discrimination against Christians which are considered less grave and less worthy of attention on the part of governments and public opinion.”

The Pope’s address to the diplomatic corps each January is regarded as the most important public-policy statement of the year: the papal equivalent of a “State of the Nation” address. Ordinarily the Pontiff surveys the globe, offering the perspective of the Holy See on the world’s trouble spots. But in his 2011 address, Pope Benedict concentrated almost exclusively on the theme of religious freedom, which he identified as “the first of human rights.”

Quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Pope said: “Humanity throughout history, in its beliefs and rituals, demonstrates a constant search for God and ‘these forms of religious expression are so universal that one may well call man a religious being.’” He reminded the diplomats that the need for religious freedom had been the theme of his message for the World Day of Peace, formally released on January 1. “The religious dimension is an undeniable and irrepressible feature of man’s being and acting,” the Pontiff said, and any denial of religious freedom undermines other human rights and endangers world peace.

In his survey of international affairs, the Pope drew attention to violence against Christians in several countries, primarily in the Islamic world. He protested the targeted killings of Christians in Iraq, the mob violence against Copts in Egypt, the Christmas attacks on churches in Nigeria, and added that “particular mention must be made of the law against blasphemy in Pakistan,” which is regularly used as a means of intimidating the Christian minority. The Pope issued a clear challenge to the leaders of the Islamic world:

To the authorities of that country and to the Muslim religious leaders I renew my heartfelt appeal that their Christian fellow-citizens be able to live in security, continuing to contribute to the society in which they are fully members.
The Pope made it clear, however, that Islamic nations were not alone in their offenses against religious freedom. He mentioned the violations “in south and southeast Asia, in countries which for that matter have a tradition of peaceful social relations”—presumably a reference to Hindu violence against Christians in India, as well as Muslim extremism in Indonesia and the Philippines. Pope Benedict also took special note of the situation in China, where Catholics “are experiencing a time of difficulty and trial” as the Beijing regime seeks to tighten control over the “official” Catholic Church.

Nor did the Western world escape papal criticism. In a passage clearly aimed at Western Europe and North America, the Holy Father spoke of more subtle violations of religious liberty:

I think in the first place of countries which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance, but where religion is increasingly being marginalized. There is a tendency to consider religion, all religion, as something insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to modern society, and to attempt by different means to prevent it from having any influence on the life of society. Christians are even required at times to act in the exercise of their profession with no reference to their religious and moral convictions, and even in opposition to them, as for example where laws are enforced limiting the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care or legal professionals.
Pope Benedict also protested “the banning of religious feasts and symbols from civic life under the guise of respect for the members of other religions or those who are not believers.”

In the course of his speech the Pope offered thanks to the European Union for taking up the cause of Christians who are the victims of violence in Iraq, and to Italy for leading a drive to overturn rulings requiring the removal of the crucifix from public buildings. He expressed his thanks to the Moscow Patriarchate in particular, and the Orthodox churches in general, for their cooperation in the defense of Europe’s Christian heritage.

The Pope concluded his address by remarking that the Church makes considerable contributions to the public welfare in every country where Catholics are active. He cited Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a magnificent example of the social contributions made by ardent Catholics, noting that this year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth.

The papal address was delivered to all the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, assembled in the Sala Regia of the apostolic palace. The Vatican now has diplomatic relations with 178 nations; there are also diplomatic representatives of the European Union, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Knights of Malta.

The dean of the Vatican diplomatic corps, Alejandro Valladares Lanza of Honduras, offered formal greetings to the Pontiff on behalf of the group. In his opening remarks the Pope acknowledged and returned those greetings. He also voiced his sympathies on the recent death of Baroness van Lynden-Leijten, who had been the Dutch ambassador to the Holy
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