(Vatican Radio) Religious freedom and respect for the rights of Christians and other minority groups in the Middle East were at the heart of an address by the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, at an international conference held in Paris on Tuesday.
Representatives of some 60 nations took part in the conference, discussing the plight of victims of ethnic and religious violence across the Middle East. The international meeting, jointly sponsored by the French and Jordanian governments, called for an action plan of political, legal and humanitarian proposals to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees who’ve fled from the region.
Listen to Philippa Hitchen's report:
In his address, the Vatican’s ‘foreign minister’ spoke of the atrocities perpetrated over the past year in the Middle East against Christians and people of other religious or ethnic minorities. The violation of human rights and international humanitarian law by both the self-styled Islamic State and other parties in conflict continues today, he said, causing the current influx of migrants seeking safety in Europe.
Archbishop Gallagher pointed to three areas of action needed to combat the crisis and bring peace and stability to the region. Firstly, he said, the international community must respond to the immediate needs of the refugees, such as food, shelter, education, jobs and health care. But in the longer term, he said, the same international community must also work to ensure respect for religious rights and especially freedom of religion for all people in the Middle East – including the right to change one’s religion. In many countries in the region today, he noted, there is freedom to worship, yet limited space for individuals to freely practice their chosen faith.
Secondly, Archbishop Gallagher spoke of the need to guarantee the rights of refugees returning to their countries of origin to live in dignity and security. Religious and ethnic minorities must not simply be tolerated but have the full rights of equal citizens, guaranteed by the implementation of “adequate legal instruments”.
Thirdly the Vatican ‘foreign minister’ spoke of the need to tackle terrorism and encourage interfaith dialogue, especially through education in schools, on the internet and in the sermons of religious leaders. Muslim countries in particular must ensure these do not become opportunities for extremism or radicalization, while Western nations must guard against words and actions which can cause offence or provoke people of different faiths. Instead, Archbishop Gallagher said, Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders must promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue, denouncing clearly the exploitation of religion to justify violence. Finally he spoke of the need to promote “a positive and respectful separation” between politics and religion, in order to guarantee the autonomy and “indispensable collaboration” between political and religious authorities.