07/05/2007, 00.00
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Religious freedom for all: in the East, but also in Europe

by Bernardo Cervellera
The speech given by AsiaNews’ director at the rally “Against the exodus and persecution of Christians in the Middle East and for religious freedom in the world.”

Rome (AsiaNews) – A rally “Against the exodus and persecution of Christians in the Middle East and for religious freedom in the world” took place yesterday in Rome.  The initiative, which had been launched by Italian-Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam, saw the participation of some 4,000 people from different religions and various political currents.   Speakers included: Attilio Tamburrini, of the Italian section of Aid to the Church in Need; Roberto Pazzeschi, of the Italian Evangelical Alliance; Jesus Carrascosa, Communion and Liberation’s director for international affairs; Souad Sbai, president of the Association of Moroccan Women; Riccardo Pacifici, spokesman of Rome’s Jewish community.  At the request of the diocese of Rome, Fr Bernardo Cervellera also spoke at the rally.  Here is his address:

This evening marks a beginning and like any beginning it comes with its birthing pains.  It can perhaps be said that the martyrdom being suffered by so many Christians in the world is the expression of these birthing pains.

Fr Ragheed Ganni, age 34, of Mosul, Iraq, was a friend of mine.  This young Chaldean priest was killed exactly one month ago, after having celebrated Mass in his parish of the Holy Spirit.  Three subdeacons were killed with him: they were Basman Yousef Daud, Wahid Hanna Isho, Gassan Isam Bidawed.  The group of men who stopped them and forced them out of their car asked them to convert to Islam.  Upon their refusal, they were killed, mowed down by repeated blasts of gun fire that left them disfigured.  In the immediate hours following this fatal attack, their bodies remained abandoned in the street because no one dared to go near.  The killers had left bombs around their remains, ready to kill anyone who went to recover the bodies.

Fr Ragheed was a gentle, calm man; he never ceased to pray and work for a free Iraq, for democracy, cultivating fraternal and helpful relations also with Muslims in Mosul.  Just days before he died, he asked us to help various families get medical treatment abroad for their children.

Fr Ragheed’s fate was not an unforeseen accident.

The anarchy in which the country is drowning, the powerlessness of the international forces, the inertia of local forces, and above all, the increase in fundamentalism, have created a situation where a “hunting season” has been opened against Christians, who are without a militia or any kind of support.  In Baghdad, Mosul and other areas, they are the victims of rape, kidnappings, extortion, threats, killings, all carried out with religious motives.  Many Christians see their homes expropriated, and are left to live on the streets, or in churches.  In a country that once called itself secular, Christian girls are forced to wear headscarves; some who refuse are disfigured with acid.

Dozens of churches have been the target of attacks and destructions.  Hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing abroad.  According to some official estimates, more than 50% of Christians have left the country, together with hundreds of thousands of Sunni and Shia Muslim families.

Various American and Swedish figures are proposing to “save Christians” through the construction of a safe haven, the Nineveh Plain, so that Christians can be gathered and watched over.  But many Iraqi Catholics and bishops are against such segregation.  “For centuries,” Bishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk tells me again and again, “Christians lived side by side together also with Muslims and we share their fate.”  Bishop Wardouni and the Patriarch of Baghdad say the same.

In order to save the Christians of Iraq, what is needed is a commitment to peace and security in the entire country, with also firm intervention in case of emergencies involving refugees, by providing entry visas, sending aid to all those internally displaced, in Basora and in Kurdistan.

A similar situation is being experienced by Palestinian Christians, who have been plunged for decades in history’s longest conflict, and by Lebanese Christians.  They continue to emigrate due to the fundamentalism that is destroying centuries of coexistence, but above all due to insecurity in the region, the lack of a future for their children.

This evening we ask the world that the safety and freedom of Christians in the Middle East be guaranteed.  And this is very much a just cause because there is an objective emergency.  But we are not calling for freedom and safety only for them, but for all the societies of which they are part.

Thus, the search for solutions to the problems faced by Christians requires a commitment to the search for lasting solutions.  And this cannot occur without negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine and without a Regional Peace Conference on the Middle East.

In this, we are comforted by the teaching of Benedict XVI.  Addressing the other day the Catholic representatives of so many persecuted churches, the Pontiff did not concern himself only with Christians, but with the entire Middle-Eastern population, both Christian and Muslim.  He stressed that “peace, so often implored and long-awaited, is unfortunately still largely offended.”  In particular, he asks “those who have specific responsibility” to “adhere to the serious duty of guaranteeing peace to all, indiscriminately, freeing it of the fatal disease of religious, cultural, historical or geographic discrimination.”

This evening, we call for religious freedom for all nations of the world.  Just looking at Asia alone, one can see to what extent this right is trampled: from Iran, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, Vietnam, to North Korean and China.  As for China, an ultramodern country, there are still terrible violations: two bishops, Monsignor Han Dingxian and Monsignor Su Zhimin have been missing for many years after having disappeared into the hands of police.  Other priests are in prison or in isolation.  The same fate is being suffered by Muslims in Xinjiang and Tibetan Buddhists.

Religious freedom is the basis for human rights.  Without religious freedom, the whole building risks collapse.  China is the typical example: the oppression of religious freedom goes hand and hand with the growth of corruption, of violence against the poor and migrants, treated like slaves, and reveals the fragility of this giant.

Often, in the West itself, religious freedom is considered a useless appendix.  Christianity in particular is seen as a burden, a tradition to be freed of.

In a certain way, there’s something new about this evening: Westerners who are going back to thinking of Christians and religious freedom not as an historical embarrassment, but as a benefit for humanity as a whole and Europe above all.

It is not by chance that, in his beautiful speech at Regensburg, Benedict XVI dedicated just a few lines to the irrationality of violence in Islam and in religions, but he dedicated a long page to the irrationality of Western culture that wants to do without the religious dimension and Christianity.  This false, irreligious culture, which suffocates the voice of Christians in Europe, is the herald of violence and dangerous also from the international point of view.

This evening’s step is a step toward the re-birth of a Europe that nourishes itself from its religious roots.

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