By Most Rev. Michael J. Sis, Bishop of San Angelo
Religious freedom is necessary for the health of a democratic society. However, it is being increasingly threatened around the world today, including in our own beloved country. The Fortnight for Freedom is being observed by Catholics in the U.S. from June 21 through July 4, 2015, as an initiative to highlight the right to religious liberty.
The Fortnight for Freedom began in 2012, and is even more vital in 2015, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council Declaration on Religious Freedom,Dignitatis Humanae. This landmark document teaches that religious freedom is rooted in the freedom of conscience. Human beings should be immune from compulsion in everything related to the making or rejecting of an act of religious faith. Furthermore, religious organizations should have immunity from coercion in the public expression of their faith and of the social implications of that faith.
How is religious liberty being threatened today? On a world scale, religious persecution is increasing. According to the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious faith is highly restricted. The International Society for Human Rights reports that 150,000 Christians are killed for their faith each year. Some estimates report that, during the 20th century, 45 million Christians died for their faith. Pope Francis has acknowledged that there are more Christian martyrs today than in any other time in our history.
In China there are periodic crackdowns on Tibetan Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants. The Church in Vietnam has suffered tremendous persecution by the government in recent years. In Iraq, ISIS attacked the 2,000-year-old Christian community of Nineveh. Christian homes were marked with an Arabic “N” for “Nazarene.” Christians have been either deported or killed, and their ancient churches are being destroyed and desecrated. Almost every day we encounter new reports of brutal acts of terror against Christians perpetrated by groups with extremist interpretations of Islam.
Religious liberty is also threatened in many parts of Western Europe and North America, where the public expression of religion and traditional religious values are increasingly unwelcome. In the United States, while the freedom of religion is the “first freedom” enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, many voices in our contemporary culture tell us that religious faith has no right to affect how we do business in the world.
In some states, for example, those who attempt to live their lives in a way that is consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs about the true nature of marriage are labeled as haters and bigots. There have been many cases where people trying to live their public lives in conformity with their faith have been coerced by social and governmental pressures to comply with the new social consensus. In a democracy that truly respects religious liberty, the state should not attempt to coerce the religious conscience.
In the first few centuries of our Christian faith, our ancestors in the Church faced the option of either affirming the Roman gods or being fed to the lions. Many of today’s Middle Eastern Christians are being given the choice of either converting to Islam, exile, or death. In the United States, Catholics and other committed Christians are being offered the choice of either giving in to the contemporary cultural norm or facing punishment by the government. All these cases demonstrate an intolerance of the traditional teachings of our faith.
Religious freedom is not a right created by the state. It is a fundamental human right that comes from God. The theme for this year’s Fortnight for Freedom is “The Freedom to Bear Witness.” Let us pray during the two weeks of this observance that God may strengthen our own resolve to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.
To find suggested activities for marking the Fortnight for Freedom at home or in the local parish, please see the special web page of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops atwww.Fortnight4Freedom.org.
(Author’s Note: Some of the information contained in this article comes from "ISIS and Indiana: the Global Crisis of Religious Liberty and Catholic Responsibility," by Thomas F. Farr, April 26, 2015,Fortnight4Freedom.org.)