Pope urges respect for religious symbols

Monday, January 10, 2011

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI appealed Monday for freedom of faith in Egypt, Pakistan, China and the Middle East, and urged greater respect in Western countries towards religious symbols and beliefs.

The right to religious freedom “is indeed the first of human rights”, the pontiff told ambassadors and envoys of some 179 states which have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Benedict appealed to authorities in Pakistan to abrogate an anti-blasphemy law “all the more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities”.

In November 2010, a Pakistani woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death by hanging on a charge of blasphemy. Last week the governor of the state of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead by his security guard allegedly for supporting the woman.

“The tragic murder of the governor of Punjab shows the urgent need to make progress in this direction - the worship of God furthers fraternity and love, not hatred and division,” Benedict said.

Benedict mentioned several areas of the world where according to him religious freedom, particularly that of Christians, was being violated or denied.

He referred to Iraq and the attacks there - mostly by Islamic extremists - that have induced many Christians to abandon the country.

“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 pontiff said.

He also cited recent violence against the Christian Coptic community in Egypt, including the bombing of an Alexandria church in which dozens were killed.

Such a “succession of attacks” signalled the urgent need for governments of the region to adopt, “in spite of difficulties and dangers,” effective measures for the protection of religious minorities, Benedict said.

“Need we repeat it,” he asked. “In the Middle East, Christians are original and authentic citizens who are loyal to their fatherland and assume their duties toward their country.”

“It is natural that they (Christians) should enjoy all the rights of citizenship, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom in education, teaching and the use of the mass media,” he added.

Referring to an ongoing spat between the Vatican and Beijing over government interference in church affairs, Benedict said his thoughts were with the Catholic community in China during their “time of difficulty and trial”.

But the German-born pontiff also criticised attitudes towards religion in Western nations “which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance, but where religion is increasingly being marginalised”.

This included “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,” Benedict said.

He thanked those European nations who had supported Italy in a case in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian public school classes ran contrary to parents’ and children’s right to freedom of religion.

Benedict said he was also “gratified” by the adoption in October 2010 by the Council of Europe of a resolution protecting the right to conscientious objection on the part of medical personnel who refuse to perform abortions.

Filed under: Religion

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