Religious freedom is shrinking all over the globe. That’s the stark conclusion of a major new report by the charity Aid to the Church in Need. You might think this dramatic story would be on the front pages of all the world’s newspapers. But it seldom is.
Why? Partly because the facts are politically incorrect. According to the report, the most serious violations of religious freedom are committed in majority Muslim countries. The world’s most persecuted minority are Christians. That doesn’t fit the western ideology that portrays Christians, always and everywhere, as moralistic oppressors and Muslims as a victimised minority.
Those who challenge this unthinking assumption are frequented ostracised. That makes the Prince of Wales’s principled stand this week all the more courageous. In a video message played at the report’s launch, he correctly identified the destruction of Christianity in the Middle East as “an indescribable tragedy”.
But while accurately naming the persecutors and oppressors in the Middle East, he didn’t fall into the trap of presenting the global struggle for religious freedom as a simplistic clash between Islam and Christianity. As the ACN report makes clear, Muslims are also suffering serious persecution and discrimination, “both at the hands of other Muslims and from authoritarian governments”. The battle for religious liberty, therefore, is a fight for the rights of Muslims, as well as Christians.
Prince Charles spoke movingly about how his own Christian faith had enabled him “to speak to, and to listen to, people from other traditions, including Islam”. He also endorsed Pope Francis’s description of interfaith dialogue as “a duty for all Christians”.
That is an implicit challenge to the Church. Inter-religious dialogue is not, to put it mildly, a topic that sets many Catholics’ pulses racing. Our hearts are frequently hardened by the accounts of ISIS atrocities in Syria and Iraq. How can we “dialogue” with people who crucify their enemies?
But we must not see all Muslims through the distorting lens of ISIS. We live and work alongside Muslims who are dedicated to prayer, peace and charity. Those are the people we should be engaging in dialogue. As Prince Charles wisely observes: “To do this effectively, with a truly fraternal approach, requires not only maturity in one’s own faith, but also an essential humility … to speak to another faith tradition and to defend those who follow it, it is profoundly helpful to speak from the core of one’s own spiritual experience.”
The battle to expand religious freedom will be one of the great fights of the 21st century. We are all called to play a part in this great effort.
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