Pope warns diplomats on threats to religious freedom

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI on Monday (Jan. 10) decried
violence against Christians in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, as well
as more subtle "threats to the full exercise of religious freedom" in
the secular West.

The pope made his remarks in his annual address to foreign
ambassadors to the Vatican. Returning to the theme of his recent message
for the World Day of Peace, Benedict focused on religious freedom as the
"first of human rights," which he said is widely "violated or denied"
around the world.

The pope paid special attention to the Middle East, noting recent
attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt, and called upon "governments of
the region to adopt ... effective measures for the protection of
religious minorities."

Much of Iraq's Christian minority has fled the country amid violence
following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003; a car bomb outside a Coptic
Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt, on New Year's Day killed at least
21 people.

Benedict also lashed out against Pakistan's blasphemy law, which he
said "serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against
religious minorities." On Jan. 3, the governor of Punjab was killed by a
security guard for supporting changes to the law.

The pope made no explicit reference to Islamist terrorism, which has
been widely blamed for the anti-Christian attacks he mentioned in his
speech, including bombings in Nigeria which killed 38 people on
Christmas Eve.

Following months of tension with China over the communist
government's restrictions on Catholic clergy, Benedict was relatively
restrained in his reference to a "time of difficulty and trial" for the
church there.

The pope was positively friendly to the Communist government of
Cuba, voicing hope that its "dialogue happily begun with the church may
be reinforced and expanded."

Benedict also warned against the "marginalization of religion, and
of Christianity in particular" in the West. He called for a defense of
the "right to conscientious objection" by medical professionals who
refuse to participate in abortions, and of the right to display
religious symbols, such as the crucifix, in public places.

In an apparent reference to recent controversy over the public
school curriculum in Spain, Benedict denounced "obligatory participation
in courses of sexual or civic education" that contradict church teaching
as an "attack on the religious freedom of families."

Francis X. Rocca

Francis X. Rocca writes for Religion News Service.

All articles »