The First Freedom Print
By James Schall   
Wednesday, 03 December 2008

Popes state that the first freedom, that of religion, is the basic freedom. Other freedoms depend on it. Civil law does not “make” this freedom, but recognizes it as inherent in the human person, whose origin and destiny are not political.

The U.S. Constitution lists religion negatively: “Congress shall make no law…” This freedom increasingly confronts a militant secularism that in many states limits even biblical admonitions. Religion is a “fanaticism,” to be rigorously controlled. It is not a “freedom” respected and allowed to be itself in the public order.

Christians leaving Muslim states is a direct consequence of a reverse position on religious freedom. Here the state and the religion are one. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom of “false” religion. In Muslim lands, Christians have, at best, a second-class citizenship. Historically, this situation resulted when once-Christian lands, from the eighth century on, were unable to defend themselves against Muslim armies. Once the political and military conquest was concluded, the religious change quickly followed.

Article 25 of the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion, its practice, existence, and legitimacy. Such a freedom, however, means little if local police do not guarantee this freedom. A dominant and militant religion can limit the implementation of police powers.

L’Osservatore Romano on November 5 reported on the Joint Pastoral on “anti-Christian violence” of the bishops of the Indian province of Orissa. On September 3 Reuters recounted how Hindu militants in that province attacked and destroyed many Christian communities, churches, and homes. Reuters cites a Christian, Lai Mohan Digal: “By dawn, Christian homes in the village were smoking heaps of burnt mud and wooden doors and windows stripped off. ‘We could hear them come shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ Digal said. He referred to the rallying cry of Hindus hailing their warrior-god.” Digal continued: “The mob poured kerosene on the thatched roof-tops of the village homes, then threw matches. Church spires were hacked down.” Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, in significant numbers have undergone similar attacks in recent decades in other parts of India.

The bishops attributed this persecution to “Hindu fundamentalists.” They listed some 60 people killed in Orissa since August 23: “At least 50,000 Christians fled the massacre by escaping into the forests or unsafe refugee camps set up by the government.” In addition, “Thousands have been tortured and forced to embrace Hinduism as a prerequisite to return to their villages, as they have been warned that they can only stay as Hindus” - words of the local Catholic archbishop. Obviously, what a constitution says is not always what happens in the streets.

The letter, read at Sunday Masses, “also expressed its disappointment in both state and central government for their lack of response to the ongoing violence.” This violates the constitutional obligations of these officials, who are often under local pressure not to interfere.

The reason for the violence, the bishops think, is the Church’s service to the marginalized. “Those in power have thus seen this (work) as a threat and have taken to violence.” The bishops in part blame police “inaction.” Evidently the local government has recently changed, a positive sign.

The modern secular state sought to mitigate the problem of religious strife. It did this by constitutional means. It defined the certain limits of religion to guarantee the good of all. But, as in India, the western Church is now seen as a threat because of its educational, health, and social services. The state itself, defining what is its own, has increasingly taken over these areas. Many would be content with a purely private religion whose discourse concerned nothing but a “supernatural” life totally unrelated to what happens in this one. The latter life now belongs to the state.

During the Synod on the Word of God, Archbishop Ramzi Garmou of Teheran for the Chaldeans, soberly remarked: “The whole Bible…tells us that faithfulness to the Word of God leads to persecution….According to the Gospel, persecution is considered as the most eloquent sign of faithfulness to the Word of God.”

To say that the only Christians in danger of persecution are those who have not capitulated to the “rights” claimed by the modern state seems paradoxical. Christians in both Muslim and Hindu lands appeal to civil government for protection against persecution. In the post-liberal state, all religions are equally private. All are thought subject to a “fanaticism” needing control.

Perhaps the Chaldean Archbishop was right. The only way we will be able to spot real Christians is if they are persecuted. “Non-persecuted” Christians ally themselves with the modern state or are converted to the dominant religion. They do not maintain enough Christian doctrine or practice to be threats either to the modern state or to other dominant religions.


James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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