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Pope condemns persecution of Christians

Benedict XVI has paid tribute to murdered Pakistani politician Shahbaz Bhatti (Photo: PA)

Pope Benedict XVI has condemned “religiously motivated terrorism” and restrictions on religious freedom during his annual address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican.

Looking at signs of promise and areas of concern around the globe, the Pope said human dignity, truth and justice demand that governments safeguard all human life and recognise the importance of the traditional family based on the marriage of a man and a woman.

But his strongest words were reserved for the topic of religious freedom and religiously motivated violence.

The Pope paid tribute to Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and government minister for minorities in Pakistan, “whose untiring battle for the rights of minorities ended in his tragic death” when he was murdered last March.

“Sadly, we are not speaking of an isolated case,” the Pope told the diplomats gathered in a formal, frescoed hall of the Apostolic Palace.

“In many countries, Christians are deprived of fundamental rights and sidelined from public life; in other countries they endure violent attacks against their churches and homes,” he said, mentioning particularly the Christmas Day attacks against churches in Nigeria.

“In other parts of the world,” he said, “we see policies aimed at marginalising the role of religion in the life of society, as if it were a cause of intolerance rather than a valued contribution to education in respect for human dignity, justice and peace.”

“In the past year, religiously motivated terrorism has also reaped numerous victims, especially in Asia and in Africa,” he said.

Discussing the Arab Spring movements that toppled repressive governments in North Africa and spread to the Middle East, Pope Benedict said “it is hard to make a definitive assessment” of events, but “initial optimism has yielded to an acknowledgment of the difficulties of this moment of transition and change”.

With concerns expressed about creating new power elites or creating situations where Christian minorities could face more pressure, the only way forward towards true democracy and peace “is through the recognition of the inalienable dignity of each human person and of his or her fundamental rights”, the Pope said.

“Respect for the person must be at the centre of institutions and laws,” the Pope said in his address to representatives of the 179 countries that have full diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Pope Benedict focused particularly on the needs and concerns of the world’s young people as he spoke to the ambassadors about the global economic crisis, the Arab Spring democracy movement, wars and social tensions.

“The present moment is sadly marked by a profound disquiet, and the various crises – economic, political and social – are a dramatic expression of this,” he said.

The Pope expressed his hopes for an end to bloodshed and tensions in South Sudan, Syria, the Holy Land, Iraq and the Great Lakes region of Africa, and urged the nations of the world to take seriously their obligation to protect the environment and fight climate change.

Saying he was looking particularly toward developed western nations, Pope Benedict urged governments to protect the most basic human right – the right to life.

“I am convinced that legislative measures which not only permit but at times even promote abortion for reasons of convenience or for questionable medical motives compromise the education of young people” in respect for life and hope for the future, which in turn compromises the future of humanity, he said.

Pope Benedict said education in knowledge and in values was crucial today and that “pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman.”

“This is not a simple social convention,” he said. The family is the basic structure of society and “policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” he said.

Turning his attention to the environment, the Pope said people cannot ignore the natural calamities and “ecological disasters like that of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan” that marked 2011.

“Environmental protection and the connection between fighting poverty and fighting climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development,” he said. The Pope asked governments to demonstrate “a great sense of solidarity and responsibility toward present and future generations” as they prepare for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which will be held on June 20 to 22 in Rio de Janeiro.