"Religious liberty is at the very heart of human rights, making the other personal and collective liberties possible," Archbishop Giuseppe Bertello, the Vatican’s Permanent Observer at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, said on April 8 in an address to the members. He called it the indispensable condition for building a nation, as well as for collaboration and friendship among peoples. Echoing the pope’s repeated emphasis on religious liberty, he said that although this principle is accepted in theory, unfortunately it is not respected in practice.
Religious persecution is virulent and widespread throughout the world. The pope, who is reminded of this daily, this year chose as retreat director for the papal household Archbishop Nguyen Van Thuan of Vietnam. The archbishop had been held in prison for 13 years for his faith, 9 of which were spent in solitary confinement. By hoarding small bits of paper on which he was supposed to write his "confession" for the police, he was able to record in Latin 300 phrases from Scripture that he remembered. Such stories were at one time the ordinary currency of Catholic discourse. Though we rarely repeat them these days, persecution remains a contemporary phenomenon.
The Keston Institute at Oxford University, a religious rights vigilance group, has recently been forced to revive its Persecution List, containing the names of people persecuted solely for their religious beliefs. Though incomplete, the current list is representative of a larger number of people and includes those imprisoned in China, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam. Eight Roman Catholic bishops are on this list, including one in China who "was arrested on the feast of the Assumption (1999), has not been seen since, and his whereabouts are currently unknown."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on May 2, in its first report since it was created by a 1998 federal law, likewise pointed to religious persecutions in China, Russia and Sudan. Rabbi David Saperstein, who chairs the commission, said it chose to focus on Russia not because religious rights are as grievously abused as in Sudan and China, but because a 1997 religion law threatens what had been an improving post-Soviet climate for religious freedom. "We are particularly concerned about President (Vladimir) Putin’s recent proclamation that all religious groups not registered by the end of this year would be liquidated," Rabbi Saperstein said. While Russian federal authorities have mitigated the effects of the 1997 law, local and regional authorities harass and interfere with religious communities, said the commission’s report.
The commission’s harshest criticisms were directed at Sudan, where, Rabbi Saperstein reports, "the government has escalated an appalling policy of deliberately bombing civilian facilities in the South. It has repeatedly hit churches, schools, hospitals and the facilities of aid organizations." Members of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference who visited the Sudan in March said that "the Khartoum-based Islamic government has waged an offensive war in the south for the last 17 years, where mostly Christian and traditional religions predominate. Endless injustices are inflicted on Christians living in government-held areas."
Archbishop Marcello Zago, O.M.I., secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, reports that "in many African countries the church is subject to persecution. Efforts to weaken the church, under different pretexts for different reasons, are seen throughout the region. It is obviously part of a broader plan that involves the whole of Africa. It is good that the church and people in general realize this."
In Indonesia, the climate of hostility to Catholicism is so intense that the Sisters of the Poor of St. Joseph have been forced to give up their work in a province where they have been for 50 years. "All that we have built in this half century has been destroyed. The best option for us is to leave," said Sister Mericia Arts, the superior general. What they had built and seen destroyed were 12 schools, a hospital, a leprosarium and two clinics.
Catholics and others persecuted for their faith are an inspiration to all of us. We must pray for them, we must remain aware of their situations, and we must be forthright in publicly condemning such worldwide abuses. One missionary bishop has lamented the lack of support he feels when the fear of appearing illiberal or intolerant keeps Catholics from speaking out.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends actions ranging from new diplomatic steps in Russia to supplying aid to rebel organizations in Sudan and withholding permanent normal trade status from China. The American bishops have been courageous in urging caution before concluding agreements with China while human rights are so constrained. And religious liberty is at the very heart of human rights.