Lest we forget


On January 5, 2011, I took on the role of personal
representative of the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation
in Europe (OSCE) on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination and intolerance
against Christians and members of other religions. That makes, at least, for a long
business card. I am the third such representative after the office was established,
and the first scholar. My two predecessors were politicians.

Headquartered in Vienna, the OSCE has 56 participating
States including the US, Canada, all the states of Europe and these resulting from
the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of which are in fact located in Asia. A number
of non-participating states have signed partnership agreements, and also maintain
embassies to the OSCE in Vienna. Representatives’ positions are honorary. Translated
from diplomatic jargon, this does not mean that we only pretend to work, but that
we do not receive any monetary compensation.

Although the other parts of my mandate are also
interesting – for instance, I devote a substantial portion of my time at OSCE to
Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) issues – I will focus in this speech on intolerance, discrimination
and persecution against Christians, a subject of great magnitude and concern.

According to the well-known religious statisticians
David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson (1), 100,000 victims in 2010 is a reliable
estimate of Christian martyrs, ie Christians killed for their faith (as opposed
to victims of political or ethnical wars just happening to be Christian). Statistics
are by definition a matter of contention, but nobody doubts that figures are horribly
high, and do more than justify an energetic activity by international organizations
such as OSCE in this field.

On 10 January 2011, Pope Benedict XVI delivered
his annual address to the Diplomatic Corps, which was entirely devoted to religious
liberty. Although OSCE is obviously a secular entity, I am very grateful to the
Pope for having pointed out an agenda which is not aimed only at Catholics or Christians
but – on the basis of the universal rights of the human person – is addressed to
all people of goodwill.

In his address the Pope highlighted five risks
to religious freedom. I would like to elaborate on each of them based on my own
OSCE experience.

does religious freedom involve?

The first concerns a possible confusion about
what precisely is religious freedom. (Almost) no government in the world claims
to be against religious freedom, but the problem is that the meaning of the expression
is interpreted differently. I have heard from several diplomats that in their country
there are no problems of religious freedom for Christians, since hundreds of churches
are duly open every Sunday.

This is a very common confusion between freedom
of religion and freedom of worship. The latter is an important part of religious
freedom, but a part nonetheless. Religious liberty should also include the liberty
to preach outside of the churches, to convert, to be converted without fear of reprisals,
to publish books and magazines, to evangelize via radio, TV, and the Internet, to
open schools, to participate without discrimination in the public conversation and
in politics.

Christians have a right – not only individually,
but collectively – to issue political statements, just as any other body or organization,
in matters they regard as morally important without being accused of interfering
or stepping outside their purely religious role.

I had to defend the right of the Catholic bishops
in Malta to publicly state their position on the May 28 referendum about divorce,
where in the end 53 percent of the votes were in favor of divorce and 47
percent against, showing a very divided public opinion. It is a part of religious
liberty that the bishops, like any other citizen, should have the right not only
to tell Catholics that they should not divorce but also to explain and defend publicly
their persuasion that divorce is socially harmful and should not be legalised. Of
course, those opposing the bishops’ position have the same right to explain and
defend publicly their belief that the bishops are wrong.

On January 17, 2008 the Pope should have visited
La Sapienza University in Rome. But the visit was cancelled due to the protest of
a small minority of teachers and students and to the statement by the Italian government
of the time that it would have been quite difficult to protect the Pope from unpleasant
incidents. This is in itself a testament to the fact that problems of religious
liberty for Christians do really exist everywhere.

In the published text of his intended speech,
the Pope quoted non-Catholic American philosopher “John Rawls [1921-2002] [who],
while denying that comprehensive religious doctrines have the character of ‘public’
reason, nonetheless at least sees their ‘non-public’ reason as one which cannot
simply be dismissed by those who maintain a rigidly secularized rationality”. Rawls
implied that the Church has no more rights than anybody else to speak in public
on controversial political issues, but it is also true that it has no fewer rights.

In fact, as Rawls summarized by the Pope went
on, perhaps the Church deserves to be heard even slightly more than somebody else.
At least, its “doctrines derive from a responsible and well thought-out tradition
in which, over lengthy periods, satisfactory arguments have been developed in support
of the doctrines concerned”.

Another misconception, more frequent – as we
would say in OSCE jargon, with reference to where the organization is headquartered
– “west of Vienna” than “east of Vienna”, is in fact to confuse religious freedom
with relativism and the idea that religion is not important, a marginal component
of public life.

This is not a merely theoretical question. In
fact, the fear that religious freedom involves relativism and an underestimation
of the role of religions typical of the modern West is the primary reason why countries
with a strong Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist religious identity resist the application
of international conventions in the area of religious freedom. They are afraid that
accepting religious freedom necessarily means ceding to the relativism and indifferentism
characteristic of a certain modern Western culture. They must be convinced that
this is not the case.

of Christianity in Islamic countries

The second risk identified in the Pope’s address
on 10 January 2011, to which I now return as an “index” of the current issues in
terms of religious freedom, is that of the attempt by Islamic ultra-fundamentalism,
which should not, of course, be confused with Islam in general, to bring an end
to the bi-millennial existence of Christian communities in the Near East and to
close down missionary churches elsewhere, resorting even to terrorism.

In some countries the attempt at a religious
cleansing which would definitively eliminate Christians is by now all too clear.
It is true that governments distance themselves from the ultra-fundamentalists.
But the time of words not followed up by actions has gone. There is a need to adopt
effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.

Nor is it a problem just of police, whose action
in countries such as Egypt is however very important. There must be a qualitative
leap, despite the recent difficulties, if non-cosmetic results are to be achieved.

It is also a matter of laws. In some Islamic
countries if someone converts from Islam to Christianity, he or she is punished
by laws against apostasy and – where these laws have been revoked following Western
pressure – by norms against blasphemy, which are often just disguised laws against

The Pope, explicitly naming names, stated: “Among
the norms prejudicing the right of persons to religious freedom, particular mention
must be made of the law against blasphemy in Pakistan: I once more encourage the
leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate that law, all the
more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and
violence against religious minorities”.

and Buddhist “fundamentalism”

The third risk – often little known or under-estimated
– is constituted by aggressions against Christians by Hindu or Buddhist “fundamentalists”,
again not to be confused with Hinduism or Buddhism in general. They identify the
national identity of their countries with religious identity, sometimes defended
violently against Christianity.

These are what the Pope calls “troubling situations,
at times accompanied by acts of violence […] in south and south-east Asia, in countries
which for that matter have a tradition of peaceful social relations. The particular
influence of a given religion in a nation ought never to mean that citizens of another
religion can be subject to discrimination in social life or, even worse, that violence
against them can be tolerated”.

lingers on

The fourth risk is constituted by the fact that,
even if many people would like to forget it, there are still Communist regimes out
there. “In a number of countries”, the Pope states clearly alluding to these regimes,
“a constitutionally recognized right to religious freedom exists, yet the life of
religious communities is in fact made difficult and at times even dangerous (cf.
Dignitatis Humanae 15) because the legal or social order is inspired by philosophical
and political systems which call for strict control, if not a monopoly, of the state
over society”.

The Pope’s thoughts, there, “turn once again
to the Catholic community of mainland China and its pastors, who are experiencing
a time of difficulty and trial”. Nor is this the only case, if we just think of
the largely forgotten drama of Christians in North Korea, a country which every
year wins a “Gold Medal” from the Protestant organization Open Doors as the most
dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.


The fifth risk is represented by what the Pope
in his address to the Roman Curia on 20 December 2010, adapting an expression coined
by the well-known American Jewish jurist of South African origin, Joseph Weiler,
called the West’s “Christianophobia” (Weiler in fact prefers “Christophobia”).

“Turning our gaze
from East to West», the Pope said, «we find ourselves faced with other kinds of
threats to the full exercise of religious freedom. 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”.

Nobody, including the Pope, is suggesting the
killing of Christians in some Asian and African countries is comparable to the marginalization
of religion in Europe. There is, obviously, a substantial difference between being
ridiculed and being shot.

However, apparently minor incidents may start
a process leading to violence. I have formally protested against assaults on churches
both in Spain and Italy, where as recently as June 5 a Mass celebrated by a bishop
was interrupted in Milan by gay activists protesting the Catholic Church’s attitude
to homosexuals. This is a type of incident which would have been inconceivable in
Italy just a few years ago and which is now repeating itself all over Europe.

In 2010 the Pope went to England in order to
beatify John Henry cardinal Newman (1801-1890). In one of his most famous speeches,
the “Biglietto Speech” read in Rome in 1879 when he was created a cardinal by Pope
Leo XIII (1810-1903), Newman lamented that in the United Kingdom religion was not
openly persecuted but regarded as something which was not polite to mention in the
company of gentlemen. “It is as impertinent,” Newman said, “to think about a man’s
religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family”. “As to
Religion,” he added, “it is a private luxury, which a man may have if he will; but
which of course he must pay for, and which he must not obtrude upon others, or indulge
in to their annoyance”.

It is this kind of marginalization that is the
new name of discrimination against Christians in Europe.

The fact that OSCE established the office of
a Representative for combating (inter alia) discrimination against Christians represented
in itself an achievement for the cause of fighting Christianophobia. Naturally there
is no lack of difficulties and opposition, and in times of economic crisis the resources
of the international organizations are severely limited.

As regards concrete action for freedom for Christians,
the work of my office at OSCE is carried out through diplomatic activity with participating
States, statements on specific incidents, and “country visits”, sometimes carried
out along with the other two representatives, appointed respectively for combating
anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This work is limited institutionally to the OSCE
participating States, but includes interesting countries. Next week I will conduct
with the other two representatives a country visit to France, meeting, inter alia,
with the anti-cult governmental mission MIVILUDES.

not celebrate Christian martyrs?

On the level of raising awareness about discrimination
against Christians, we can certainly do more. We are organizing an OSCE roundtable
in Rome on September 12 on the theme of hate crimes against Christians.

I have also suggested to the States that wish
to participate the celebration of a Day of Christian Martyrs of our time, to be
celebrated not – or not only – in churches, where there are already similar initiatives
in place, but in schools, cities, and public institutions, because the persecution
of Christians does not affect just Christians, but everyone.

I suggested the date of 7 May recalling the
great ecumenical event which the Blessed John Paul II (1920-2005) celebrated at
the Colosseum in Rome on 7 May 2000. The proposal was endorsed by the authoritative
Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica (2). This day could be an annual opportunity
for a collective examination of conscience and for an exacting approach from Europe
to the problem of the protection of Christian minorities in various countries.

I keep in my computer a photograph sent to me
by an Indonesian priest and later posted on the internet. It is not a pleasant image.
It shows the bodies of two of the three teenage Christian schoolgirls – Theresia,
Alvita and Jarni – who were ambushed and beheaded on October 30, 2005 on their way
to their Christian school in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The perpetrators,
who were member of the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, were later identified and arrested.
They received quite lenient sentences for Indonesian standards: 20 years for the
chief of the commando, 17 years for the other two assassins.

It is always worth re-reading the appeal made
by the Blessed John Paul II on 7 May 2000 at the Colosseum at the start of the 21st
century which was then just beginning:

“In the century and
the millennium just begun may the memory of these brothers and sisters of ours remain
always vivid. Indeed, may it grow still stronger! Let it be passed on from generation
to generation”.

Perhaps my OSCE activity as a reluctant diplomat
may not achieve much. But I like to conceive it as a tribute to the memory of Theresia,
Alvita and Jarni. Indeed, let their story be told to our children in the West and
to those who ignore it. Yes, let their memory be passed from generation to generation.


(1) “Christianity 2011: Martyrs and the
Resurgence of Religion”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol.
35, no. 1, January 2011: 28-29.
(2) Luciano Larivera SJ, “Le persecuzioni
dei cristiani nel mondo”, La Civiltà Cattolica no. 3863; June 4, 2011.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian
sociologist of religion. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR).
This article has been reproduced with permission from CESNUR.


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