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Interview with the Vatican’s Observer of the Council of Europe on Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty in Europe

Public Domain

Chiara Santomiero - published on 04/26/13 - updated on 06/07/17

The state of religious expression in the public square is under question

On 24 April, in Strasbourg, the Italian parliamentary official Luca Volonté presented the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with a report on safeguarding religious freedom and protecting religious communities from violence along with a resolution that, after considerable debate, was approved almost unanimously. This important document expresses grave concerns about the growing number of violent attacks on individuals and religious communities in the world, especially Christians, because of their faith. The text reiterates that freedom of religion is a universal human right, and it reminds Europe of its responsibility to the other nations of the world, as well as within its own member countries. Aleteia spoke about this with Monsignor Aldo Giordano, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the Council of Europe.

Are we seeing a new focus on religion in international institutions?

Actually, there are still mixed signals, but it seems clear that religion is now back in the public arena, despite the many declarations that “God is dead,” as well as a kind of ideological censorship that some years ago relegated religion to silence. While it is true that the issue of religion has emerged amid the tensions, intolerance and violence that have erupted when religion has been exploited, on the other hand, the political world is becoming very aware that dialogue between cultures and peoples is unimaginable without considering that religion is at the heart of every culture; that there is a radical and urgent question regarding life’s meaning that only religion is able to address; and that a civilization cannot long survive without a great religion supporting and animating it. This is also true for Europe.

What are the most debated issues in Europe regarding religious liberty?

In Europe, religious liberty is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is a very complex challenge that presents itself with different faces: the debates and pronouncements on the presence of the crucifix in public schools in Italy; on wearing the hijab in France; on the construction of minarets in Switzerland; on wearing religious signs in the workplace in the UK; etc. These all question the presence of religion and religious symbols in the public square. Several cases that are currently before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg concern the autonomy of the Church and its right to self-governance with its own rules, and without interference from the state or other agencies. The Danish satire of Muhammad sparked debate about the difficult relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

Do cases of religious intolerance and discrimination also occur in Europe?

Even in Europe, we always have to be on the alert and not take the lessons of history for granted. I am referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Diplomatic Corps on January 10, 2011. It turns out that vandalism (to places of worship, cemeteries, symbols, etc.) has greatly increased, as have offenses against religion, which are sometimes carried out in the name of freedom of expression and art. More subtly, however, we need to remember that an attempt is being made to marginalize religion as something insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to modern society. In the end, it demands that, in practicing their profession, believers act without reference to their religious and moral convictions, and even in contradiction to them. This occurs, for example, where laws are enforced that restrict the freedom of expression and the right to conscientious objection of health care workers or certain legal practitioners, particularly on the issue of abortion. Attempts to ban religious feasts and symbols from public life are especially prevalent in Europe. In Europe, there are also threats to the freedom of education, and even an aversion to Christian schools at an administrative level. Ideas about the human person and life that are allegedly neutral are being imposed on families, but in reality they reflect an ideological anthropology that is opposed to faith and right reason. We need only think of certain teachings regarding sexual life.

Do the resolution and report on violence against religious communities approved in Strasbourg therefore reflect a new focus by European Institutions on the problems present on other continents?

Europe cannot consider itself a self-enclosed fortress; she has a responsibility to care for other countries where, tragically, we see religious freedom being denied, even to the point of violent persecution and the murder of believers of all religions, but especially of Christians. I was able to look at the photos of the victims of the massacre of Coptic Christians in the cathedral of Baghdad October 31, 2010. The photos were brought to Strasbourg by a delegation of the country’s bishops. They showed the faces of babies, children, young people, fathers, mothers, priests … Recently we have seen institutions taking more positive stances, especially in the face of the series of tragedies that are presently occurring. At both the EU and the Council of Europe, the issue has finally been considered seriously. In particular, care should be taken to ensure that the important documents that have been issued do not remain rhetorical appeals but instead are transformed into concrete policy decisions.

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