Pope Benedict began this year by presciently devoting his first two major addresses of 2011 to appealing for greater religious freedom around the world. Popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa soon followed, possibly increasing the chances of religious liberty in the region, or threatening it even further.
In his January 1 World Day of Peace Message on the theme “Religious freedom, the path to peace,” Benedict XVI stressed that religious liberty is “rooted in the very dignity of the human person.” He reminded the world it is “at the origin of moral freedom” and a “precious contribution” to the building of a just and peaceful social order.
On January 10, in his annual address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, he again laid out the importance of freedom of worship and tolerance of all faiths, and singled out at the beginning Muslim-majority states in the Middle East. (According to the Pew Research Center’s “Global Restrictions on Religion,” released in December 2010, the Middle East-North Africa region has the highest levels of government restrictions on religion, and religion-related hostilities. Saudi Arabia, it recorded, has the worst record on both indices.)
On both occasions, the Pope wasn’t just making appeals on behalf of Christians but followers of every creed, and they came on the heels of some egregious attacks on Christians and other religious followers. These included the recent massacres at churches in Iraq and Egypt, frequent sectarian atrocities carried out by Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, and protests against Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law. The Vatican is particularly concerned about what it sees as a growing “Christianophobia” worldwide, which is one of the reasons why, on January 1, the Holy Father called for another World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi to be held this year.
As if on cue, less than three weeks after these appeals, the world witnessed a series of uprisings—albeit largely political in nature—across the Middle East-North Africa region. The protests spurred hope for social, democratic, and religious reform but also stoked fears of increased extremist repression in the region. The initial reaction among most Church leaders, however, was one of hope.
Christians in Egypt, a country that has now become a beacon for the democratic and reformist movements across the Arab world, have long complained of discrimination and of being treated as second-class citizens. Many Copts, for instance, have had to wait years to obtain a permit to build a church, and some churches have been the target of arson attacks in recent years. Most Egyptian Muslims, however, deny Christians are persecuted in the country. That is largely true, said Egyptian Jesuit professor of Islam, Father Samir Khalil Samir, but he added that religious freedom is still lacking and the ordinary Egyptian is “unable to make the distinction.”
Yet the popular revolution in Egypt led to the creation of strong bonds between Christians and Muslims, united in a common cause. In Tahrir Square, Muslims participated in Christian prayer services, largely organized by young people, and in cities such as Alexandria, Christians and Muslims took turns policing each other’s property from looting and violence in the absence of security forces.
“The recent events in Egypt have produced a great feeling of solidarity between Christians and Muslims,” observed the apostolic nuncio to Egypt, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, speaking from Cairo. “We hope this will be built upon in the near future, in the way the future of Egypt is being planned.”
Cardinal Antonios Naguib, the Catholic Coptic patriarch of Alexandria, described the scenes of solidarity as “simply wonderful.” Asked by CWR whether it signaled an end to the discrimination of the past, he said: “Certainly that is what we hope. This is the orientation of the revolutionary movement, but what happens tomorrow is not easy to predict.” He said he was waiting to see what the new reforms will entail and, in particular, the results of a referendum on a new constitution.
A looming fear is that, just as the revolution could herald a new era in religious freedom in Egypt and beyond, it could similarly open the way for Islamists to inveigle themselves into power, should the next government prove to be weak or perhaps too Western. “Everybody is concerned [about extremists taking over],” said Cardinal Naguib. “It’s a danger not only for Christians but for the political orientation of the new form of the country.”
The patriarch said instead he was hoping that plans would be realized for a civil society not run by the military, nor a police state or religious state. “This was what the youth and the protesters were calling for all the time and this is what we hope will happen,” he said.
The Church sees constitutional reform as important in order to allow everyone to take his rightful place in society, but ecclesiastical leaders are playing down any Church involvement in devising the new governing structures. “Personally I do not encourage the clergy to take direct part in political actions, according to canon law, because we always have to [remain] in our religious sphere,” said Cardinal Naguib.
But he added that that doesn’t mean “we don’t care” about what is going on. “We teach our people what are the right principles according to the social teaching of the Church and it is up to them to take their positions and make their political choices,” he said.
Archbishop Fitzgerald wouldn’t comment on how the Church would help mold a system to better promote religious freedom. Preferring to leave it to civil society to decide, he simply said it was “a questions of citizens.” Moreover, he made the important point that what happens in Egypt cannot necessarily be repeated across the Arab world, as each country is significantly different. Whatever the religious freedom gains in Egypt are, they are unlikely to be emulated in Saudi Arabia.
The Holy Father likewise refrained from entering into the politics of the uprisings. He said he was closely monitoring events in Egypt and called for a return to “peaceful coexistence” and “a shared commitment for the common good.” But his own belief and hope is that Islam and the Church can live peacefully with one another, and one way to do this is by forming a united front against secular fundamentalists.
Speaking to Peter Seewald in the book Light of the World, Pope Benedict noted that “radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other,” but he added that it is here where religions have something in common.
“We both defend major religious values—faith in God and obedience to God—and we both need to situate ourselves correctly in modernity,” he said, adding the caveat that neither religion must “dissolve” into one another. “Of course, the respective identity of the various religions must continue to exist,” he said. “We must try to understand one another.”
Benedict XVI therefore continues to place a premium on interreligious dialogue because he sees an alliance between Islam and the Church as a counterweight to radical secularism and Islamist violence. “Where Islam has a, let’s say, monocultural dominance, where its traditions and its cultural and political identity are uncontested, it easily sees itself in the role of a counterweight to the Western world, as the defender, you might say, of religion against atheism and secularism,” he told Seewald. “The sense for truth, then, can narrow down to the point of becoming intolerance, thus making a coexistence with Christians very difficult.”
All this, he believes, increases the importance of remaining “in close contact with all the currents within Islam that are open to, and capable of, dialogue, so as to give a change of mentality a chance to happen even where Islamism still couples a claim to truth with violence.”
But within that dialogue, the Pope will continue to appeal for the right to religious freedom and the need for Islamic leaders to reject violence. That may occasionally be misinterpreted, as appeared to happen in January when the Al-Azhar University in Cairo broke off dialogue because it mistakenly believed the Pope was interfering in Egyptian affairs (though it later emerged the university was probably put under pressure to cut ties by the Mubarak regime).
Still, the leaders of Muslim-majority nations will probably disregard the Pope’s appeals. The Pope’s position on dialogue and religious freedom “is not really noted in the Arab world,” said Father Samir, who teaches at St. Joseph University in Beirut. But he stressed that neither is it totally ignored. “Part of the society knows about it, and takes it seriously, especially Christian Arabs (either Orthodox or Catholics), but also some Muslims in Lebanon,” he said.
And although Father Samir doesn’t think Benedict XVI’s appeals for religious freedom were in any way a factor in the uprisings, they were a “comfort” to many people, including Muslims, he believes. He gave Bahrain as an example, a country where recent unrest has been principally about discrimination of a Shia majority by the ruling Sunni minority. “They probably did not hear the Pope’s appeal, but they feel the same,” Father Samir said.
For Cardinal Naguib, religious freedom is one of the topics “in the center” of the unrest, and not only for Christians. “It is the fundamental liberty for citizens in a normal democratic state,” he said, “and that is what everyone is claiming now.”