(Source: Novena/Vatican News)

The Holy See has lamented that the different measures imposed by countries to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have had “profound ramifications” on the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief, and have limited the religious, educational and charitable activities of religious communities.

In a meeting November 9-10 in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Holy See Permanent Representative Monsignor Janusz Urbańczyk warned legislators of OSCE States about the “serious consequences” that restrictive anti-pandemic measures can create in religious communities.

Besides playing an important role in the fight against the crisis, including in the field of health, these communities, Urbańczyk said, offer “moral support and messages of solidarity and hope”.

The OSCE, which comprises 57 States in Europe, North America and Asia, addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratisation, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities.

Autonomy of religious communities

“States must respect the autonomy of religious communities, guaranteeing them the freedom to choose, appoint and replace their leaders or decide – on the basis of their internal norms – the content of their beliefs, their structure or their name”, Urbańczyk urged.

Noting that the exercise of religious freedom leads to personal fulfilment and helps contribute to the good of society, the Holy See official lamented that, in certain societies, religions continue to be perceived “as a source of intolerance rather than of social harmony” and as a threat to peace.

In that sense, the Vatican diplomat deplored attempts to limit religions or creeds to the private sphere, relegating them to temples and places of worship and depriving them of their legitimate role in the public arena.

“Violence, persecution and killing in the name of God is not religion but radicalism. States have the responsibility to promote the common good, social peace and coexistence by respecting pluralism and protecting the freedom of religion or belief”, the Vatican diplomat clamoured.

Role of media

Urbańczyk noted that the media, as instruments for the promotion of the freedom of religion, have failed to create the right balance or consensus on how and where to draw a line between the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of religion.

Sometimes, he said, there are insults or discrimination against doctrine, the institutions or the followers of particular religions.

He called on the OSCE to develop guidelines to promote religious tolerance and non-discrimination in the media and, in particular, to avoid “labelling and denigrating” believers or their communities as “bigots and fanatics”.

The Holy See representative also condemned the “dissemination of contempt” for religious communities, including “instigation to hatred” and the promotion of irreverence through “provocative representations” of religious symbols on the internet and social media. 

Inter-religious dialogue, cooperation

Speaking about the role of civil society in defending religious freedom, the Vatican official urged support for interfaith dialogue and collaboration to promote greater tolerance, respect and understanding among the different communities of believers.

He called for a dialogue that guarantees the stability and security of democratic societies, and which, as Pope Francis says, can be “instruments to build bridges”.

Urbanczyk further clarified that interreligious dialogue is an internal matter of religious communities. They should be left to decide whether and when to initiate it, which communities to engage and which issues to dialogue on.

In this regard, he said, the State should not interfere in the freedom of religious communities under the pretext of a consultation.

The Holy See representative concluded by stressing the need to convince people that in a secular age, freedom of religion and belief is an important right that deserves to be protected.

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