The right to religious liberty protects more than just the freedom to hold beliefs and gather for prayer, the Holy See's representative told the 20th Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“In the view of my delegation, religious freedom cannot be restricted merely to freedom of worship,” Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi told the international body's human rights assembly on July 3, pointing out that the “fundamental freedom” goes further than this.
The archbishop, who represents the Holy See to the U.N. and other international organizations in Geneva, said religious freedom also includes “the right to preach, educate, receive new adherents, contribute to political discourse, as well as participate in public activities.”
“Most importantly, the right to freedom of conscience must be upheld and protected. Believers should not be forced by governments to choose between conformity to governmental policies or legislation and faithfulness to religious tenets and beliefs,” Archbishop Tomasi told the human rights council.
During Tuesday's discussion on freedom of religion, he called attention to a “widening gap” between the international community's “stated principles” on the subject, and its “implementation of these fundamental human rights” in practice.
In an apparent reference to events in Africa, he pointed to a spate of attacks against places of worship and Christian communities, in which hundreds of people have recently died in several countries. Such persecution,the Vatican representative said, must be brought to the world's attention and stopped.
In global terms, he reminded the council, “Christians represent the religious group that is subjected to religious persecution in the greatest numbers.”
And while violent persecution is unknown in many countries, there are also – according to the words of Pope Benedict XVI, cited by the archbishop – “more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols” at work in society.
In several accepted human rights declarations and U.N. resolutions, the right to religious freedom is stated “unambiguously.” Archbishop Tomasi pointed out that these guarantees include “freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
He also noted that this right has both individual and institutional dimensions, such that it applies to the principles held by religious organizations as a matter of conscience.
The distinction between religious freedom, and the more narrow conception of “freedom of worship,” has been a point of contention in several Western countries in recent months.
In the U.S., the Obama administration's use of “freedom of worship” language has been seen as implying a policy shift, in keeping with its contraception mandate imposed on religious groups. Canada's Catholic bishops recently issued a pastoral letter warning of similar threats to believers' public rights.
Meanwhile, in the U.K. – where “equality” laws put an end to all Catholic adoption work – there are concerns about a further loss of religious freedom that could follow if marriage is redefined.