Why Christians are still being persecuted

The principle of religious tolerance or liberty has only been acknowledged by the Catholic Church since 1965. It is not even an aspiration outside the West, says TP O’Mahony

Why Christians are still being persecuted

Whenever people worship in a public place, they are vulnerable to terrorists and extremists, whether the latter are religiously inspired (they too often are) or not. As sacred spaces, churches, mosques, and synagogues should be safe, but they are not, as recent events have tragically shown.

The dreadful, co-ordinated suicide bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka — mainly in the capital, Colombo — killed 253 people and again focused attention on the central importance of religious freedom. This seemingly straightforward concept is, in reality, very nuanced and controversial.

Christians, in particular, have been the targets, though not exclusively, as the killing of 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, showed. But Catholic churches were targeted in Sri Lanka.

Religious persecution has a very long history, as stories about lions and the Coliseum in Roman times graphically remind us. But since the re-emergence of religion as a political force on the world stage, following 9/11, intolerance of others’ beliefs — if not open hatred of the holders of these beliefs — has led to new forms of religious discrimination, oppression, and persecution.

According to the non-partisan Pew Research Centre, in Washington DC, Christianity remains the world’s most persecuted religion, though this is hardly acknowledged in the West.

Across the globe, Christians are subjected to real and sustained violence because of their faith. As the Rev Giles Fraser, a Church of England parish priest in London and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4, noted in the aftermath of the Sri Lanka horrors, during the past century, Christianity has been “all but driven out” of the Middle East, the place of its birth.

We are now living through one of the most serious phases of Christian persecution in history and most people refuse to acknowledge it.

Christians are regularly persecuted across much of the Muslim world, from Sudan to Pakistan. So, for that matter, are atheists. Christian and Muslim minorities are brutally repressed in China, and, in Myanmar, Muslims are persecuted by Buddhists. Coptic Christians are persecuted in Egypt. The list goes on.

Religious tolerance is (a) a relatively recent principle, and (b) not even acknowledged as an ideal outside of the West. Saudi Arabia, for instance, recognises no religion other than the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam that is the state religion.

It is in churches, mosques, and synagogues that people usually congregate to exercise a fundamental human right: the right to freedom of religion; religious liberty. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948) states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance”.

It is not the exclusive right of any one faith, or of any one church. But, for many centuries, it was. This is because, since the time of the Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, there was one religion — Christianity — in the West. In all of Europe, throughout the Holy Roman Empire, Catholicism (because that was the one version of Christianity), with the papacy at its epicentre, prevailed.

A cosy alliance between the state (personified by the emperor) and the church resulted. It suited both sides to work together, to become interdependent.

The state would sometimes act as an agent of the church by, for instance, enforcing decisions of ecclesiastical courts, such as burning at the stake for ‘heretics’; the church, in turn, would lend legitimacy to the state. The notion of a ‘separation’ of the two, which might even be desirable in certain circumstances, was utterly foreign to both sides.

Sri Lankan light candles during a function to express solidarity with all the victims of Easter Sunday attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Sri Lankan light candles during a function to express solidarity with all the victims of Easter Sunday attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

This cosy doctrine was rudely and dramatically challenged by the first of two epochal events: the Reformation, in the early 16th century, which gave rise to the birth of Protestantism. There was no longer one church with overarching authority over all of Europe.

Now, there was a rival faith, and several rival churches (the English Reformation, engineered by King Henry VIII, spawned that form of Protestantism known as Anglicanism, with the newly-created Church of England as its mother church). And, henceforth, the Popes no longer spoke for all of Christendom.

Hostility between the rival faiths spilled over into the terrible violence of the ‘wars of religion’, which scarred Europe for decades and cost the lives of millions. Eventually, a solution of sorts was arrived at through the Treaty of Westphalia, of 1648, which ended the final phase of the religious strife, known as the Thirty Years War.

Martin Luther’s rebellion of 1517 had directly challenged papal monarchy. Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) had claimed jurisdiction for the papacy throughout the whole world in the papal bull of 1302, ‘Unam Sanctam’ (One Holy (Church).

“This was a culminating moment in the universal pretensions of the papacy,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University.

But in the aftermath of a second epochal event — the French Revolution of 1789 to 1815 — far from seeing an abandonment of these pretensions, they were intensified. The revolution had led not just to the dethronement of Europe’s most powerful Catholic monarch, Louis XVI, but his execution (January 1793). Little wonder that this appalled and horrified the other Catholic monarchs in Europe, and also the monarch in Rome, known as the pope.

By the middle of the 19th century, alarmed by the spreading tide of liberalism unleashed by the French Revolution, Rome decided to act. In 1864, Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical, ‘Quanta Cura’ (Condemning current errors), to which was attached a ‘Syllabus of Errors’, condemning, among other things, the principle that non-Catholics should be given freedom of religion in a Catholic state.

Along with religious liberty, Pius IX also condemned liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state, and rejected the proposition that the pope “can, and ought to, reconcile himself with progress, liberalism, and modern civilisation”.

The papacy would cling to the old model of church-state relations stemming from the ‘happy marriage of altar and throne’ (as historians of Christianity would describe it). For centuries, popes had reiterated the principle, ‘Extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ (Outside the Church, there is no salvation). An offspring of this was the doctrine that ‘error has no rights’.

Prior to the Reformation, the principle and the doctrine would go virtually uncontested. In the post-Reformation period, and especially since the Peace of Augsburg, of 1555, which recognised ‘confessional states’ in both Protestant and Catholic Europe, the situation became much more complicated. According to the formula agreed at Augsburg, the ruler (monarch) determined the religion of the territory he controlled — ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ (whose kingdom, his the religion).

The formula provided that in each territory, subjects should follow the religion of their rulers.

For Rome, though, and for the papacy, the claim of ‘one true church’ remained unshaken. It would be buttressed in 1870, when the controversial ‘Syllabus’ of 1864 was followed by the solemn declaration, at the First Vatican Council, of papal primacy and infallibility.

The concept of church-state relations that followed has been well outlined by John W O’Malley, of Georgetown University:

The basic premise of the teaching was that only truth has a right to freedom, or, put negatively, as it often was, ‘error has no rights’. In essence, the teaching boiled down to the following.

"First, if the majority of the citizens were Catholics, the State had the duty to profess the Catholic faith and do all it reasonably could to defend and promote it. This meant that, at the same time, it was duty-bound to discourage or even suppress other religions, which might include denying their adherents some civil rights.

“Second, in certain situations, ‘in order to avoid greater evils’, it might be necessary to tolerate other religions and thus allow their free practice.

“Third, when Catholics are in a minority, the State has the duty, from natural law, to guarantee them full citizenship and free practice of their religion, because the State must foster the pursuit of truth, which the Catholic Church possesses.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that this doctrine of Church-State relations became unstuck. Theologians in France and the United States, in particular, began to make a case for a revision of this doctrine, in the light of changed political realities.

And it was the decision by John F Kennedy to run for the American presidency, in 1960, that would prove pivotal. It was a game-changer. At that time, the prospect of a Catholic being in the White House for the very first time caused great unease, especially within the US Protestant churches. Fears of ‘Rome rule’ began to be voiced.

“No Catholic, critics claimed, could be president, because he would have to obey the Church and work for the suppression of all religions, except Catholicism,” said Professor O’Malley.

Shoes left by panicked worshippers remained in the darkened church, and broken bottles of holy water lay on the floor. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Shoes left by panicked worshippers remained in the darkened church, and broken bottles of holy water lay on the floor. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

In view of the flare-up of anti-Catholic sentiment during his campaign, Kennedy travelled to Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1960, where he delivered a landmark speech to a large gathering of Baptist ministers. In the course of the 30-minute speech, which was widely praised afterwards, he reaffirmed, in ringing terms, the separation of church and state, decried any mixing of religion and politics, and vowed, if elected, never to let his religious views influence his decisions as president.

By 1960, preparations were already underway in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, which had been convened by Pope John XXIII. It would produce a document that would reflect the new thinking that had emerged on religious liberty and its implications for church-state relations.

In view of all that had gone before, the concept of religious liberty has only found formal acknowledgement and acceptance within the Catholic Church since 1965, when, on the day before it ended, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty was promulgated by Pope Paul VI.

The principle architect of this historic declaration, the man who laid the groundwork for it, was the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray. He was well aware that, in 1960, the official Catholic teaching on church-state relations was an obstacle raised during JFK’s presidential campaign. In the 1950s, Murray had begun writing about the need for a new approach, more in line with what was required in a modern democratic society, where religious pluralism was a reality.

The Catholic Church should be seeking to promote religious liberty, not suppress it. This would eventually land him in trouble with the Holy Office, during the pontificate of Pius XII (later renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), and, under pressure from that office, his Jesuit superiors instructed him to cease publishing.

Murray had written that “America has proved, by experience, that political unity and stability are possible without uniformity of religious belief and practice, without the necessity of any governmental restrictions on any religion”.

His opponents in Rome didn’t think this could be reconciled with church teaching that proclaimed there was only one true religion, and thus did not admit freedom of choice. The election of John XXIII, in 1958, and the calling of Vatican II, meant rehabilitation for Murray, and the Pope personally appointed him to the panel of experts for two of the council’s great documents: the ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’, and the ‘Declaration on Religious Liberty’.

But when the latter came to be debated on the floor of the council, there was still bitter opposition to it. It was seen by some of its opponents as a betrayal of past papal teaching.

Prior to the council, popes had vehemently opposed freedom of conscience, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. The most noteworthy example of this, as we have seen, was Pius XI’s ‘Syllabus of Errors’, published in 1864. Yet it was another Pope, John XXIII, who, in his 1963 encyclical, ‘Pacem in Terris’ (Peace on Earth) pointed the way forward when he spoke of the human right to worship God “according to the dictates of an upright conscience”.

The declaration itself acknowledged that “the right to religious liberty is based on the dignity of the human person”. It went on to say, “it is agreed, then, that modern man wants to be able to profess his religion freely, in private and in public”.

The concept of religious liberty is a key element of the doctrine of the separation of church and state, a doctrine that is usually traced back to Thomas Jefferson, who advocated the building of a “wall of separation” between the two. It is an American creation, but Vatican II — very belatedly, some would say, given the Church’s previous history — made a hugely important contribution to the modern understanding of it.

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