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2009-03-29
Rome, Italy
Vatican : Religious freedom and reciprocity: follow lesson from pope in Regensburg
by Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews

Speech presented at the conference on the theme "Religious freedom and reciprocity" held in Rome on March 26 and 27 at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

On March 26 and 27, at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, a conference was held entitled "Religious freedom and reciprocity." The two-day session, promoted by the faculty of canon law at the university, featured presentations by Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Religious Dialogue, Cardinal Peter Erdo, primate of Hungary, and Fr. Maurice Borrmans, an Islamicist and professor at the Pontifical University of Arab and Islamic Studies. On Thursday, the conference hosted a roundtable on the theme "The understanding of religious freedom in the various religions." The speakers included Fr. David Maria Jaeger, a professor of canon law and member of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews, and Michele Zanzucchi, director of the magazine "Città Nuova." The following is the address given by Fr. Cervellera.
I.
It may be that all of the religions and their Books present openings to the other religions, and in any case contain expressions of tolerance toward the other creeds.

Buddhism, for example, in its very earliest texts, contains exhortations to nonviolence and respect of the other based on the 'golden rule' (present in many ancient religions and philosophies): "Do not do to others that which you do not wish to have done to you" [1] . In general, Buddhism sees the other religions as less pure expressions, a lower and more primitive stage of spiritual development, which is fulfilled in the dharma.

Hinduism, with its conception of an Absolute that is revealed only partially to every living being, has a good foundation for expressing tolerance, which sometimes verges on relativism toward all concepts, and a powerful capacity to assimilate any other creed. A well-known Indian proverb says that "the truth is One, but different sages call it by different names." To this expression is added the anecdote of the search for truth compared to the description of an elephant that is explored and touched by many blind people (each one absolutizing the part that he touches). It is also well known that Hindu temples contain images of Ganesh, Buddha, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, etc.

In Islam as well, in the Qur'an - and especially in the period called "Meccan" - and in the hadiths, there are words exalting respect and tolerance toward other creeds [2].

But also in Islam, there are expressions in the Qur'an and in the sayings of the prophet Mohammed that lend themselves to holy war and the killing of apostates [3].

On the other hand, the Gospel and the Bible as well have sometimes been twisted to justify an attitude of closure (if not of violence) toward the other religions. It is said that this is the result of the "exclusivist" claim of every religion, especially the monotheistic religions, which are imagined to exclude all the others. In reality, this is not true: even strongly "tolerant" religions like Hinduism or Buddhism have moments and periods in their history of strong violence and tension toward the other religions (e.g. the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, who are proposing anti-conversion laws; the Tibetans and the persecution of Christians in past centuries . . .).

But what seems more important to me, starting with Catholic Christianity, is that attitudes toward religions depend on an interpretation that is guided in an authoritative way, that wards off the extremist tendencies of those who see the religions merely as something diabolical, or who see them as the highway to salvation, making proclamation useless. Thus Vatican II and the teaching of the popes is leading to the reemergence of the traditional teaching of Christ as the one savior, together with the conception that other religions contain "seeds of the Word."

But this kind of "guided interpretation" is lacking in all the other religions, and this leads to extremism and violence, which is sometimes not even condemned by those who live with love and respect the religion to which the crimes are attributed.

The problem of a guided interpretation of the Qur'an is seen by many scholars and personalities in the Islamic world as the most pressing problem. Even those who propose it risk death threats on the part of their fellow believers.

II.
Our time presents ongoing cases of enmity among the religions, or of wars with religious motivations. It is enough to consider the difficult relations among Islam, Christians, and Jews; or those between Christians and Hindus in India, in Orissa; or between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand; or between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq . . .

But very often, these wars "of religion" have political motivations. Not only in the sense that behind them is someone else with some sort of political design. More precisely, in these wars religion is considered as a political party, an experience of life that must be defended with an army deployed against everything that attacks it.

The most striking example is the "warrior" interpretation of fundamental Islam against the West. Beginning with the Khomeinist revolution, which then spread into many Muslim majority countries, the fight was begun with the West because it is seen as immoral, a supporter of corrupt Islamic governments, the enemy of Muslim culture and religion. This can be grasped simply by listening to or reading one of the ranting messages of al Qaeda, or watching demonstrations in the Muslim world with the burning of U.S. and Israeli flags, or effigies of the pope. Even the destruction of churches in Pakistan, or Indonesia, or in Iraq is justified according to the struggle against the abhorred West, with the (intentional) equation of the Church and the West, forgetting that the Christian communities in those places are not the result of colonialism, but have a history much more ancient than that of Islam.

The pogrom unleashed against Christians in Orissa beginning last August (although there have been others in recent decades) is justified by the intention to "save India" from the influence of foreigners; stopping conversions from Hinduism: their number is such - according to radical groups - that India risks witnessing the emptying and abandonment of Hindu temples. For this reason, conversions must be stopped; those who have dared to become Christian or Muslim must be reconverted; the nation must be purified from any "pollution" by foreign minority groups.

Manipulation of historical truth can also be seen here: for millennia, India has been the homeland of different religions and cultures; Christianity was not first implanted by Portuguese or English soldiers, but by preaching in the apostolic era. But these are some of the elements of the manipulation of history that the radical groups of Hindutva are implementing even in school books, in order to carry out what is described to as the "saffronization" of the country and its culture (saffron yellow is the color worn by the sannyasi, the Hindu ascetics).

The contradictory nature of these positions - which is demonstrated in the manipulation of historical truth - is even more evident if one considers that on the one hand these religious ideologies condemn and execrate the West as a whole; on the other, they use Western elements in their struggle.

Al Qaeda uses the international financial system to transfer money from one group to another; it uses science and Western computers to plan its acts of death; it takes advantage of the worldwide information network to issue its messages and publicize itself.

In a very similar way, the radical groups of Hindutva - e.g. Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - constructed their religious ideology in imitation of the European nationalist philosophies of the 19th and 20th centuries, and their sympathy toward Nazism and Hitler himself is well known [4].

On the one hand, they reject any relationship, but on the other hand they live this relationship as a cultural "ransacking," which is simply a hideous copy of a possible dialogue among cultures and religions.

III.
The violence that is manifested in relations among religions is often - or rather almost always - supported or at least tolerated by the political power. In the Arab countries (and in Iran), the struggle against Israel and the re-conquest of Jerusalem is a unifying factor for a society made of many divided minorities; in India, the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party protects and supports Hindutva groups, and hopes that in this way it will win the upcoming May elections. In Indonesia, the bloody conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas (1999-2002) was sparked by the Indonesian army itself, which was trying to win power in parliament. In Syria as well, the bogeyman of Islamic fundamentalism is how the ruling Assad family holds together, submissive and devoted, the Christian minorities, Shiites, Druse . . .

In Vietnam, the government of the city of Hanoi, opposed by the Catholics for the expropriation of land belonging to a parish, unleashed a claim by Buddhists on the same land, later deciding in almost Solomonic fashion to turn the area into a public park.

IV.
Sometimes the political power sets itself up as the "guarantor" of the dialogue among religions, but at the cost of debasing them. The most eloquent example is that of China. In this great country, only five religions are permitted (Buddhism, Taosim, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism), but only freedom of worship is allowed, or very little more. There is no true dialogue or collaboration among the religions. Religious leaders are used for orchestrated appearances, when they are needed to support Party policies. Official representatives of the recognized religions have spoken out in defense of the massacre of Tiananmen; to publicly condemn the Dalai Lama or the Falun Gong; to extend Chinese New Year wishes; to sing the praises of the Communist Party's religious policies. In this way, the spiritual heart of the religions is pushed into the private sphere, in order to use their public function alone. At the same time, the Party - as the Supreme Religion - presumes to manage, transform, and control the creeds of the lesser religions. It is enough to recall the claim of the government-Party to have the last word on the reincarnations of the Buddhas; over the selection of the Panchen Lama, the future Dalai Lama; the appointment of bishops, etc.

A similar thing is taking place in the West, where tolerance toward the religions applies only to the extent to which they are reduced to the private sphere. As soon as a religion dares to express itself in the public sphere, the condemnations rain down (see the controversy against the pope on his statements about the use of condoms and their effectiveness against AIDS in Africa [5]).

V.
In order to outline a positive path to promote the growth of religious freedom and reciprocity, I see no better way than the one indicated by Benedict XVI in Regensburg, which we could summarize in this way: to correct the pathologies of religion, and those of reason. [6].

A process is necessary for the religions to be freed from violence, adhering to reality, studying history, educating for acceptance and fruitful encounter. In order to do this, there is a need for every believer or community to look up from itself, from its own narcissism, and truly seek a connection with the Reality that is beyond all of us.

There is also the need for a form of reason that is open to religion, which does not consider religion a useless relic of the past, but a reasonable expression of the human person. Only in this way can the West again encounter the peoples of the world in a less utilitarian way.

And finally, it is necessary for states to become guarantors of the life of the religions in all their expressions. This will happen if every government subjects itself to the common natural law (or at least to the UN Charter of Human Rights that they have signed), without demanding "exceptions" from the norm for themselves.


[1] "Do not offend (wound) others in ways that you yourself would find offensive," in Udana-Varga, 5, 18; or "He who harms another is not a true ascetic," in Mahapadana Suttanta.
[2] Some examples from the Qur'an: "Let there be no restriction in faith" (2,256); "the truth comes from our Lord: he who wishes to believes it, he who does not wish it rejects the faith," 18,29. And in the hadiths: "To him who harms one who is 'protected' [Christian or Jew], I myself will be his adversary, and I will charge him on the day of the Last Judgment."
[3] For an exhaustive explanation of this topic, see AsiaNews.it, 29/03/2006, Islam humiliates religious freedom of Christians and human rights of Muslims. It's time for change, by Samir Khalil Samir.
[4] Cf. AsiaNews.it, 25/08/2008, CARVALHO N. Hindu nationalism is a cancer on India, says Orissa bishop.
[5] Cf. AsiaNews.it, 19/3/2009, my AIDS and the ‘threat’ posed by the Catholic Church.
[6] Cf. AsiaNews.it, 12/09/2006, Pope: Faith and reason to escape violence and suicide of Enlightenment.

Source: Catholic News Agency AsiaNews, Rome/Italy
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