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Why is it that terrorism and human rights violations are often attached to religion?
Remarks by Michel ROUGÉ (France)
Michel Rougé argues that religions generally affirm the innate dignity of all human persons and stand at their side when their rights are violated. He explains why religions should not be accused of promoting terrorism. He gives reasons why, on the other hand, they may refuse to endorse certain claims presented as rights which are in conflict with their notion of what human life is about and ignore the concomitant duties of human beings in society. He makes a case for benevolent secularism as a condition for religious freedom which, in line with current catholic thinking, he considers to be an essential component of respect for human rights. He concludes with a wish that religious people in the industrialised West focus their support for human rights on the "Four Freedoms", including freedom from want.
In responding to the question put to me, I should like to deal separately with the issues of terrorism and human rights violations. I wish to stress that, though it is sometimes practised in the name of religion, terrorism can never be consonant with a truly religious attitude. On the other hand, religions often take a more nuanced view of alleged human rights violations. They are, on the whole, in favour of human rights, but they also take into account other concerns which the ideology of human rights frequently ignores. Outlining the reasons for these reservations and looking in more detail at the complex problem of religious freedom may provide Christians with pointers on the way to deal with human rights issues in the religious context of the world today.
3. Religious freedom - the need for enlightened secularism. Religious freedom is a special case. A group claiming to possess the truth may find it difficult to accept that other doctrines - false by definition - could be taught and practised in the land. There is a political side to this issue. Unity of faith may be felt by certain nations and governments to be a requirement for domestic tranquillity. Two years ago, at Driebergen, CCADD celebrated, after a fashion, the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia which, 350 years earlier, based peace in Europe on the principle that all inhabitants of a country should share a common religion with the local ruler : "Cujus regio, ejus religio". In the Greek orthodox convent where CCADD met last year, participants were made to realise how difficult it can be for the Russian orthodox Church to refrain from claiming a privileged status preserving its position as the historic embodiment of the Russian nation’s spirituality. There are elements of discrimination in the religious legislation and policies of Russia which clearly contradict accepted notions of human rights and ought to be removed. But one cannot expect that the Russians will easily accept the American model of free entry and open competition among religions, including those whose self-proclaimed religious character may be considered dubious. Religious sentiment and political concerns combine in a country like Saudi Arabia where the practice of religions other than Islam is not permitted. Catholic Filipino migrants who are brought there in large numbers to do menial work are not even allowed to carry with them copies of the New Testament, prayer books or rosaries for individual use in private. Converting to another religion is forbidden in Buddhist Bhutan. It is punishable by prison terms in Hindu Nepal. It is liable to the death penalty in Islamic Iran, Sudan and Pakistan. The strong pronouncement of the Vatican Council in favour of religious freedom is all the more remarkable. Even in countries with a secularist tradition like France and the United States, religious non-conformity may occasionally be considered threatening. In France, the recent appearance of "new religions" is seen by many with great suspicion, as a danger from which the young, in particular, should be protected by appropriate state policies. The neo-fascist extreme right claims to be upholding national cultural and spiritual values when it fights against anything which is not "authentically French", be it fast-food chain stores or the Islamic religion. In the United States, we saw, some years ago, how the prospect of electing a Roman Catholic president was felt by many to be somehow un-American. The recent designation of a Jewish candidate for the vice-presidency was described by various commentators as acceptable only to the extent that his faith remained a private, personal matter. Reconciling freedom of religion with the political unity of the nation is often said to require a régime of complete separation between Church and State modelled after the principles enshrined in the American Constitution. Seen from abroad, however, America appears as a country where Christian values permeate all aspects of social life. In the US, politics and religion are mutually supportive to an extraordinary extent. In a country like France, the notion that religious and secular concerns should be kept rigorously separate often brings about open conflict between public authorities and religious communities. Stating that religion should be confined to personal belief and private worship is tantamount here to denying freedom of religion. The fear of religious activism easily leads to actual persecution. It is worth noting, in this regard, that the campaign against Scientology and other new religious sects was launched in France not by leaders of the established religions but by teachers in the public school system and other secularist elements in political parties. Disastrous experiments with radical secularism in France over the past two hundred years would seem to suggest that distinguishing between the secular and the religious spheres should not go so far as to keep them totally separate. There is need for both mutual respect of the legitimate autonomy of each domain and a minimum of co-operation in matters of common concern. How this is organised will have to depend on local circumstances. No human society is immune from intolerance. Denying religious freedom to dissenting groups is just an example of the tendency which in all places, at all times, nurtures racism, xenophobia, aggressive nationalism and other sentiments disruptive of national harmony and international peace This is why, among others, Pope John Paul II often presents religious freedom as a test of a country’s respect for human rights in general. In his message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 1999, he wrote : "Religion expresses the deepest aspirations of human persons. It determines their visions of the world. It directs their relations with other human beings. Fundamentally, it gives the answer to the question of the true sense of human life in its personal and social aspects. Religious freedom, therefore, is at the very heart of human rights. It is inviolable to such an extent that it demands recognition of the right even to change one’s religion if so required by one’s conscience. This is because everyone must in all circumstances follow the dictates of his or her conscience and no one can be forced to act against it."
Other religious leaders take a similar position in favour of religious freedom in the name of religion itself. One example is the influential Muslim spokesman Soheib Bensheikh who, in Marseilles, France, denies that Muhammad could ever have said "Whoever change their religion, kill them." as commonly claimed. He observes that this is contrary to the Prophet’s own practice and to the clear recognition, in many Koranic verses, of freedom of choice in religious matters. One should view with sympathy the efforts of enlightened Muslim leaders who want to remain faithful to the fundamentals of Islam while acknowledging the people’s demand for the respect of essential human rights and the need to establish and strengthen secular institutions as a way to ensure it.
4. Promoting human rights in the present religious context. Recognising that religion may seem, in some cases, to sanction what appears to many of us to be intolerable violations of human rights should not lead us to see religion per se as an enemy of freedom and to advocate agnosticism as the way to bring about universal recognition of individual liberty and democracy. In fact, all great religions are on the side of justice, liberty, solidarity and the respect of human dignity. The Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, has played a vital role in the development of the concept of human rights All religious traditions can be enlisted in the fight for the implementation of essential rights everywhere. To this end, religious leaders must be helped to look critically at their respective religious heritage. Some traditional positions may be the result of history rather than divine revelation and can be made to adjust to present exigencies in terms of human rights. Advantage could be taken of the experience of modern secular States, including Muslim countries where the teaching and practice of the predominant Muslim faith is perfectly free but where the government will not use its powers to enforce the rules governing the Muslim way of life. Foreigners, however, must realise that imposing their own conception of democracy and human rights to other nations, especially newly independent peoples, is contradictory. Besides, democracy as we know it does not necessarily work for peace and freedom. In deeply divided countries, multiparty elections may reinforce ethnic distinctions and result in abuse of power by one group at the expense of others. Western countries must also realise that certain aspects of their way of life do not appeal to other, non-Western nations, including some with a Christian heritage. Linking the concept and practice of human rights too closely with excessive individualism, hedonism and materialistic consumerism, as practised in the industrialised West, will be seen by many as an attack against important values which religions, in particular, rightly defend. Those interested in Christian approaches to defence, disarmament, peace and security should perhaps think about how to disassociate themselves from these deviant trends. Christian in Western countries have every right and even a duty to press for the respect of internationally agreed human rights everywhere. In so doing, they might try to use once again the broader and probably more universally acceptable notion of the "Four freedoms" which President Roosevelt set as a humanistic ideal against naziism and fascist totalitarianism. "Freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want" include not only legal rights to do this or that, but also moral rights to enjoy things like peace, development, a safe global environment, etc. They cover the moral duties of states as well as their legal obligations. President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms thus include all essential human rights, as well as other contributing factors to peace without which human rights cannot prosper, such as security arrangements and disarmament, dialogue among cultures and civilisations, respect for international law, strengthened international institutions, co-operation for development and the eradication of mass poverty. Violations of human rights are not the consequence of religion. But human rights and religions do interact. They can profit from questioning each other’s assumptions in a friendly and respectful way. This will help them to refine and purify their respective messages and establish a basis for a common contribution to the advancement of human dignity and the progress of human societies. Religious people and human rights activists can work together to that effect, and if they can, they must.
Historic reasons for the Catholics’ mixed record in human rights matters. A number of the French revolutionaries who drew up the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen set out to fight not only the monarchy but the Catholic Church as well. The preamble of the Declaration pays tribute to an enigmatic "Supreme Being" which is purposely not the Christian God. What it says about religious freedom reflects the misgivings of its drafters : "No person shall be harassed for his or her opinions, even religious, provided that their manifestation does not disrupt public order as established by law." The present French constitution recalls the 1789 document. It states that "France is a secular republic. It respects all beliefs." The existing legislation in this area provides for "freedom of worship". These texts clearly take a very narrow view of religion and the role it can play in society. In 1791, laws were enacted to shut down all convents and monasteries and to confiscate all Church property. Priests were requested to swear allegiance to a "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" which placed the Church under State tutelage. Many refused. They were arrested and soon put to death without judgement. In violation of the 1789 Declaration, Christianity was purely and simply abolished in 1793. At the same time, a political régime of terror was put in place, with the guillotine as its sinister symbol. Order returned in 1802 when Napoléon Bonaparte established an authoritarian government and made a religious restoration possible. From then on, French politics alternated between periods of democracy with a strong anti-religious bias and periods of authoritarian monarchy with a more friendly attitude towards the Church. In 1905; for example, the secularist government of the Third Republic once again nationalised all Church property and sent into exile all members of religious orders. Judges known as practising Catholics were removed. Military officers and civil servants attending Sunday mass were denied promotion. Catholicism and democracy were reconciled only at the time of the First World War when secularists and religionists joined in the common fight against the German invaders. Even today, it is frequent to see secularist human right activists take a stand against religious practices which they see as a denial of individual freedom, like, for example, when teachers’ unions oppose the wearing of so-called Islamic scarves by female pupils in public schools. Such people are not far from thinking that doing away with Islam, if not all religions, is a precondition for implementing human rights everywhere. In Italy, also, the search for human rights and democracy was often turned into a war machine against Christianity. Garibaldi, the hero of Italian unity, referred to the catholic clergy as "vomito negro", the black vomit which is one symptom of cholera, a disease devastating the country at the time. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Pope was forced out of Rome three times by revolutionary movements. In 1864, Pope Pius IX published his famous "Syllabus", a catalogue of "modern errors". He condemned side by side attempts by authoritarian governments to restrict the freedom of the Church and such liberal concepts as freedom of the press, if used to propagate immoral or anti-Christian ideas. On the opposite side, radical libertarians appeared to have adopted the anarchists’ motto : "Ni Dieu, ni maître" (we want neither a God nor masters). Leo XIII, Pius IX’s successor, noted that the prevailing capitalist system reduced workers to unacceptable levels of poverty. He supported their right to organise at a time when this was considered taboo by apologists for an unfettered market economy. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical "Pacem in Terris", in 1963, was the first Catholic pronouncement to explicitly endorse human rights as defined in the UN-sponsored Universal Declaration of 1948. This position was later ratified by the Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II even made it a cornerstone of his pontificate. There is however no reconciliation between the Church and the advocates of some controversial elements of the human rights ideology. Such differences often appear in the context of UN Conferences on specific issues. The observer of the Holy See often voices objections against some points in the draft final declarations. Other participants would deny the right of the Church to be heard in such debates. They seem to think that religion has nothing to say on social issues and should be confined to worship. This is, of course, not acceptable to Catholics and, I suppose, to all Christians as well if they wish to demonstrate in practice their obedience to Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour and give it concrete effect.