Last week in Rome, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich invited think tank leaders, journalists, and human rights advocates to the private colloquium “Stand Together to Defend International Religious Freedom.”
Among the many experts giving brief testimonies and talks were Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, secretary of the Pontifical Council of Interreligious Dialogue, Sr. Clare Jardine from Our Lady of Sion Congregation and Dr. Roberto Fontolan, chairman of the StandTogether digital platform which received promotional attention at the event. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was invited to give the closing comments.
During her opening remarks, Ambassador Gingrich reminded participants of the absolute fundamental importance of religious liberty, calling it the “first right” among all other inalienable God-given rights. Religious liberty was the first right for which America’s founding fathers fought, since many of them fled religious persecution and bigotry in Europe to pursue their faith-centered lives and vocational endeavors in a new free and tolerant nation.
“The United States cares deeply about promoting religious liberty for all,” Gingrich said. “America’s forefathers [had] understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as a gift from God.”
She said religious freedom is, therefore, considered “a critical part of a flourishing society.”
“Beyond the moral imperative to safeguard religious freedom, history has shown that when governments and societies champion this right, they are safer, more prosperous, and secure. Where fundamental freedoms of religion are under attack, we often find conflict, instability, and terrorism.”
Gingrich reminded the colloquium’s participants that April 9 would mark the 35th anniversary of the United States formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See. With common concerns about promoting religious freedom, among other human rights, the U.S. had always sent envoys to popes since its founding, yet a separate full-time embassy to the Vatican would not begin until 1984 when Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to the Holy See William Wilson presented his credentials to Pope John Paul II. Gingrich noted in a recent editorial that the need for U.S. presidents and Catholic popes to unite in strategic diplomatic alliances grew most urgent during the height of the Cold War as the “destructive force of the [atheist] Soviet Union threatened to sweep across the free world” and eliminate religiously-ordered societies and cultures.
Gingrich concluded in her speech saying that according a Pew Research Center study, while it may appear that we live in a generally freer and more tolerant post-Soviet world, still around about 80% of people today “live under high, to very high” religious persecution. “This is simply not acceptable,” she said.
Following the Ambassador’s introduction, two dramatic short films produced by the StandTogether digital platform were shown to attendees, highlighting the nightmares and carnage of religious persecution in China and Nigeria.
The first film revealed how Chinese authorities are brutally detaining an estimated 800,000- 2,000,000 ethic Kazakh Muslim families in labor camps. The families hail primarily from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Mihrigul Turson, a former Uighur prisoner and who recently found asylum in the U.S., explained how in 2015 she and her newborn triplets were stopped at a Chinese airport and then sent off to a faraway detention center, where one of her three two-month-old infants did not survive the harsh conditions.
The second film illustrated the tragic violence suffered by a Nigerian woman named Rebeca. She spoke about how she was abducted by Boko Haram Islamic extremists who sought forced conversions of Christians in her state of Borno. During the kidnapping, one of her children was thrown into a river and drowned, her husband murdered, and Rebeca herself was raped and became pregnant. She said she bore and accepted the offspring anyway, even if he would be a living memory of her evil persecutor.
Dr. Roberto Fontolan, chairman of StandTogether, said that the dramatic short films were having a wide visual impact on social media and international television. Part of the project’s messaging campaign, he said, is about informing public opinion of what Pope Francis calls today’s “new martyrs”. Fontolan said the pope has severely reprimanded those who pay witness to people suffering religious persecution but say and do nothing, labeling them “accomplices” to the persecutors.
Sr. Clare Jardine, representing the Congregation of the Our Lady of Sion, spoke in the second panel. Her religious congregation has a special mission to maintain a vivid memory of the Holocaust. Jardine said their aim is to make sufferers of religious persecution ever vigilant about potential reprisals against their faith. “We promote Holocaust awareness activities…so that we can learn from past persecution.” Like those who have suffered antisemitism, defenders of religious liberty must learn to “be very light sleepers,” she said.
Jardine’s poignant remark rang true in the wake of recent “softer” forms of religious persecution that earn fewer big headlines, as with the covering of crosses in an Italian cemetery and the “secular dress codes” being enforced in Canada. These softer forms of persecution which aim to promote the neutralization of religious expression in the public square, eventually give way to “harder”, more violently ideological practices that dictate total denial of religious freedom to citizens.
In his concluding remarks, Cardinal Pietro Parolin reasserted the common conviction that religious freedom, when egregiously violated, weakens the protection of every other God-given human right and at each rung of participation in civil society. “The choice of faith and the consequent adherence to a religion impacts every level of life, as well as the social and political spheres. Therefore, the choice, and the practice, of one’s faith must be free of constraints and coercion”, Parolin said.
Having commented on the pope’s visits to lands of extreme Christian minorities and legal persecution, like recently in Morocco which is less than 1% Christian and where apostasy laws are still in place, Parolin said there is “little doubt… we are dealing with an aggressive attack that strikes at the very core of the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, which are necessary for the flourishing of the human person, of society as a whole, and for the peaceful coexistence among nations.”
Therefore, Parolin urged leaders and media in attendance that they must not “simply [be] ‘standing together’ but ‘working together’” to defend and advance religious freedom globally. He said they must strive to put into effect practices and policies to bolster the framework of international law so as to impede infringements of religious liberty around the world.
“In this way,” Parolin concluded, “we can confront tendencies that are individualistic, selfish, conflicting, and also address radicalism and blind extremism in all its forms and expressions.”