Religious Freedom and the Document on Human Fraternity 

H. Em. Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, MCCJ

Sessione del Consiglio dei Diritti dell’Uomo

27-28 February 2020

Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Religious Leaders, 
Representatives of the United Nations Organizations,

I am delighted to be with you in this occasion and I am grateful to His Excellency Ivan Jurkovič, Permanent Observer of the Holy See Permanent Mission to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva, for organising this High-Level Event on the Religious Freedom and the Document on ‘Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’ signed by His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence the Grand-Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, in Abu Dhabi just one year ago (February 4th 2019). I also thank you all for your valuable presence on this occasion.

When we look at the Document on ‘Human Fraternity’ we can recognise it as a milestone on the path of interreligious dialogue. It marks how far we have come together, but it is also a point of departure. Thus, the Document on Human Fraternity is not so much a map, but a day-to-day commitment of working together for the common good and contributing, as believers, along with people of good will, to heal our wounded world.

Fraternity implies inclusiveness not only to my group, community, culture, religion but of all as brother or sister. To live in fraternity becomes the dynamic, as the Document suggests, by which we rise above differences and instead build bridges of coexistence for a new world.

Pope Francis in his speech at the Global Conference of Human Fraternity said: “There is no alternative: either we will build the future together or there will be no future. Religions in particular cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace.” (Address of Pope Francis, Global Conference of Human Fraternity, Founder’s Memorial Abu Dhabi, 4.2.2019).

Beside the well-known obstacles, confrontations, prejudices and conflicts in today’s world, the Abu Dhabi Declaration beckons us to move beyond any difficulty by remaining always rooted in our own identity, avoiding any kind of syncretism, and supported by the sincerity of our intentions, and at the same time to listen and understand the “other”.

The text of the Abu Dhabi Declaration emphasizes the need to move from mere tolerance to fraternal coexistence and attests that “freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom”. In this the document clearly condemns forcing any person to conversion to a particular religion or culture, or to a style of civilization that is contrary to their background, religion or own culture.

It seems that we must consider  religious freedom not as a political or ideological issue: rather the main concern should be protecting human rights and the fundamental and inalienable freedoms given by the Creator to each person, thus promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies, in which one’s beliefs and religious practices can be expressed openly and without punitive response .

In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis wrote: “The Synod Fathers spoke of the importance of respect for religious freedom, viewed as a fundamental human right. This includes “the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public”. A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism” (Evangelii Gaudium, 255).

Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar have notably addressed the topic of religious freedom citing how attacks originate and what needs to be done to defend against those attacks. In such it goes beyond the two particular religious traditions, but can be applied in general to all religions and to the international community.

The document clearly denounces any attack on religious freedom that emerge from “hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism” that originate in a “deviation from religious teachings,” and lead to “political manipulation of religions and … interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done,” they said, ‘for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted.” They therefore made a passionate appeal to “all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.” God did not, they affirmed, “create men and women to be killed or to fight one another, nor to be tortured or humiliated in their lives and circumstances,” and underlined that God “does not want His name to be used to terrorize people.”

The document cites another danger comes to religious freedom from secular societies. Such threats come from “a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles.” This anthropological materialism, can potentially undermine human dignity, by ignoring the human person’s spiritual nature, and eventually leading to a practical atheism that fails to acknowledge, value, advocate and defend for the person’s spiritual rights, including the right to conscience and to order one’s life to what one believes God has revealed.

A key point regards the protection of places of worship as a direct consequence of the defense of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Addressing both governments as well as believers, the document clarifies that “The protection of places of worship – synagogues, churches and mosques – is a duty guaranteed by religions, human values, laws and international agreements. Every attempt to attack places of worship or threaten them by violent assaults, bombings or destruction, is a deviation from the teachings of religions as well as a clear violation of international law.”

The need to bolster the concept of the rule of law and equality before the law based on the principle of citizenship, regardless of one’s religion, race or ethnicity is affirmed in order to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“The concept of citizenship,” the Document states, “is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice. It is therefore crucial to establish in our societies,” they continued, “the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities that engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority. Its misuse paves the way for hostility and discord; it undoes any successes and takes away the religious and civil rights of some citizens who are thus discriminated against.”

The law must equally and unequivocally guarantee every citizen’s human rights, among which is the right to freedom of religion. Even in places where one religion is accorded special constitutional status, the right of all citizens and religious communities to freedom of religion, equality before the law, and appropriate means for recourse when their rights are violated, must be recognized and defended in order to establish and maintain harmonious and fruitful coexistence among individuals, communities and nations.

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar stressed that there should be no difference nor a distinction between Christians and Muslims as to rights and citizenship in any country. He invited Christians living as a minority in any country to “stop feeling that you are a minority, you are our fellow citizens!” (Address of Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Global Conference of Human Fraternity, Founder’s Memorial Abu Dhabi, 4.2.2019).

True religious freedom requires that political authorities engage with religious leaders, with faith-based organizations and those of civil society, which are committed to promoting religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

In Rabat Pope Francis said: “We believe that God created human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and he calls them to live as brothers and sisters and to spread the values of goodness, love and peace. That is why freedom of conscience and religious freedom – which is not limited to freedom of worship alone, but allows all to live in accordance with their religious convictions – are inseparably linked to human dignity” (Address of His Holiness, Rabat, 30 March 2019).

Religious freedom is simultaneously a fundamental principle that flows from human nature and an existential reality in the life of every person. Unfortunately, it remains under threat both as a principle and in lived experience in the lives of too many people. Too often in many realities around the globe, religious freedom is more often words rather than the practice.

In a video message recorded with António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, at the Vatican Apostolic Palace December 20, the Pope said: “We cannot, we must not turn away when the believers of various faiths are persecuted, in different parts of the world. The use of religion to incite hatred … cries out for God’s justice”.

In reading the Abu Dhabi Document in view pf a pluralistic world and a globalized society, there cannot be reconciliation between East and West, between North and South unless we begin from a common point: the condemnation and rejection of any kind of violence or war as a solution to differences. As the Holy Father has said many times, we are in midst of a Third World War, being fought piecemeal around the globe. Thus, contemporary societies where persons live together among different cultures and religions must place above all concrete efforts for integration and harmony without which war will persevere. Religions and cultures are challenged draw forth from their deepest values their expression of peace utilizing these gifts throughout the world.

“This requires respect for religious freedom and the resolve to reject the discriminatory use of the term ‘minorities’, which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority, and paves the way for hostility and discord, discriminating between citizens on the basis of their religious affiliation. To this end, it is particularly important to train future generations in interreligious dialogue, the main road to greater knowledge, understanding and reciprocal support between the members of different religions” (Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps9th January 2020).

Pope Francis believes that the motivation for interreligious dialogue is the mutual commitment to peace and justice. In fact, interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it becomes a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities (cfr. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 250). Pope Francis’s promotions of friendship as a model for interreligious dialogue bespeaks what he calls the “culture of encounter,” asking for a readiness to listen and to collaborate for the good of humanity and to defend the right to religious freedom.

Believers are called to offer their collaboration to the societies in which they are citizens, calling on their common values and their deepest convictions concerning the sacred and inviolable character of life and of the human person. The coherent and credible believer is a witness and bearer of values, which can greatly contribute to building a more just society.

I hope that the Document on Human Fraternity will be welcomed by the international community for the good of the whole human family making that milestone the ability to pass from simple tolerance to true collaboration and peaceful coexistence.

Let us promote the historic Document on Human Fraternity calling everyone to reflect and study this new opportunity to foster peace, coexistence and freedom.

Thank you for your kind attention.