Vatican City, 9 September 2015 (VIS) – Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for Relations with States, spoke at the United Nations International Conference on the Protection of Victims of Ethnic and Religious Violence in the Middle East, held yesterday in Paris, France. The prelate remarked that during this past year we have witnessed “unspeakable atrocities committed in the Middle East, which have forced thousands of Christians and members of other religious and ethnic minorities to abandon their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in precarious conditions, involving great physical and moral suffering”.
“Fundamental principles such as the value of life, human dignity, religious freedom and the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of individuals and peoples are at stake. The phenomenon continues, with the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law by the so-called Islamic State, as well as those perpetrated by other parties to the conflict. The drama of migration during recent weeks, which has compelled Europe to pay greater attention to the situation, is irrefutable proof of this tragedy”.
He went on to indicate three key aspects for improving the future of ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East, beginning with raising awareness in the international community to face the humanitarian emergency and to guarantee minimum conditions of safety for minorities and Christian communities.
“Currently the situation compels us to deal with the humanitarian crisis”, but, “in the long term, other suitable measures will have to be taken to ensure their presence in their homelands. Among the challenges to be faced, I would underline those regarding first and foremost the respect for human rights, especially those freedom of religion and conscience. It is important to insist on religious freedom, which obviously includes the freedom to change religion. Indeed, in many countries in the Middle East, freedom of worship exists, although the space for religious freedom is at times extremely limited. Increasing this space for freedom is necessary to guarantee to all those who belong to the various religious communities the true freedom to live and profess their faith. It would appear appropriate for the States in the region to be directly involved, along with the rest of the international community, in protecting the fundamental rights of Christians and members of other religious minorities. It is not a question of protecting one religious community or another, or one ethnic group or another, but of protecting people who belong to the single human family and whose fundamental rights are systematically violated”.
The second issue is that of guaranteeing the right of refugees to return to live with dignity and in safety in their country of origin; a right that “must be defended and guaranteed both by the international community and by States, whose citizens are refugees or displaced. It must be emphasised that Christians and other religious minorities do not wish simply to be tolerated but to be considered as citizens to full effect. It is important that this concept of citizenship opens up an ever broader space, as a point of reference for social life, guaranteeing the rights of all, including members of minority groups, through the implementation of adequate legal measures”.
Finally, it is important to face the phenomenon of terrorism and to promote interreligious dialogue. “The mechanisms must be found to encourage all, including in particular countries with a Muslim majority, to deal with terrorism in a serious way, with particular attention to the issue of education”, observed the prelate. “In this respect, it is important that teaching in schools, internet use and the preaching of religious leaders do not provide an opportunity for the development of intransigent and extremist attitudes, or radicalisation, but instead promote dialogue and reconciliation. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that care must be taken regarding the use of certain expressions and manifestations, considered sacred by some religions, as occurs from time to time in the West, to avoid acts causing offence to those to whom they are meaningful”.
It is also essential to promote interreligious dialogue, which is “an antidote to fundamentalism, which afflicts religious communities. Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders can and must play a fundamental role in favouring both interreligious and intercultural dialogue and education in mutual understanding. Furthermore, they must clearly condemn the abuse of religion to justify violence”. Archbishop Gallagher concluded by adding “a positive and respectful separation of religion and State should also be promoted. In this sense, it is necessary to contribute to develop the idea of the need to distinguish between the two spheres, in favour of autonomy and mutual independence, without concealing the indispensable collaboration between them, so that they may coexist without contradicting one another, thanks to dialogue between religious and political authorities and with respect for their respective competences”.