Pope Francis on Friday lamented the fact that intolerance and persecution create more Christian martyrs today than in the early Church. He said this in his speech at the opening of a two-day international conference in Rome on “Religious Freedom According to International Law and Global Conflict of Values.” The joint organizers of the congress were the Law department of the Maria SS. Assunta University in Rome and the Law School of St. John’s University in New York City.
The Holy Father told the conference, “Nowadays, persecution of Christians is stronger than it was in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs than in that time. This is happening 1,700 years after the Edict of Constantine, which granted Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.”
He noted that the governments and many religious confessions have of late been intensely discussing the subject of religious freedom. The Roman Catholic Church he said actively contributes in these discussions. He reminded the participants that the Church has long been a major supporter of religious freedom, a stand enshrined in the Vatican II declaration “Dignitatis humanae.”
Pope Francis said: “Every human being is a ‘seeker’ of truth about his origins and destiny. In his mind and in his ‘heart’, questions and thoughts arise that cannot be repressed or stifled, since they emerge from the depths of the person and are a part of the intimate essence of the person. They are religious questions, and religious freedom is necessary for human beings to fully manifest themselves.”
He stressed that “reason recognizes that religious freedom is a fundamental right of man, reflecting his highest dignity, that of seeking the truth and adhering to it, and recognizing it as an indispensable condition for realizing all his potential.”
Religious freedom is not just freedom of thought or to worship in private. It is the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, as a consequence of what every human person has found as the truth, he emphasized.
The great challenge of our globalized world, said the Pope, is how to end “intolerance, a sickness, in which weak thinking even reduces the general ethical level, in the name of a false concept of tolerance that ends up persecuting those who defend the truth about humanity and its ethical consequences.”
This is a phenomenon in modern societies dominated by a secular and even anti-religion mentality.
Pope Francis said legal systems, at both the national and international levels, must recognize, guarantee and protect religious freedom, a right inherent in human nature, in the dignity of man as a free being. This recognition and protection of the freedom of religion indicates the health of democratic states and legitimizes their existence.
Religious freedom develops relations of mutual respect, fosters “healthy collaboration” between people and government, without “antagonism” or “confusion of roles.”
He ended his speech with an exhortation that the participants must not stop in their efforts to explore how legal systems can best guarantee respect for and protect religious freedom.
Pope Francis’ call assumes added resonance amid these days’ persecution—even the murder and rape—of Christians in India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle East.
We hope and pray leaders of government and communities throughout the world hear and heed the Holy Father’s wise appeals for the sake of mankind.