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Briefing for U.S. Bishops: International Religious Freedom - Challenges, Distinctions, Opportunities, Dangers

Most Reverend Richard E. Pates, Bishop of Des Moines, Chairman, Committee on International Justice and Peace - Opening Remarks during the USCCB General Assembly, Public Session, Wednesday, June 13, 2012

As Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, I want to thank Cardinal Dolan and the members of the Administrative Committee for this opportunity to highlight what has been a major priority for our Committee for many years—international religious freedom.

Attacks on religious communities have grown substantially around the globe.An estimated 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries with high to very high governmental or societal restrictions on religion and the situation is getting worse. Religious groups, whether Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian, face discrimination and persecution in countries or communities, especially where they are a minority. Today Christians are the religious group that most often faces persecution worldwide. We see dramatic examples of this in bombings of churches and schools.Christians face restrictions and discrimination in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, China, Cuba, Venezuela, just to name a few places.

International religious freedom is not a theoretical question for us.Our committee members and staff regularly contact the Administration and the Congress to advocate for religious freedom internationally.The United States took a lead in helping establish the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom whose mandate was recently renewed.A number of our brother bishops have served on this Commission.

In the advocacy of religious liberty, we send supportive letters to brother bishops whose people suffer and we make solidarity visits to local Churches. For us, the issue has a human face.

Last October Bishop Kicanas and Bishop Murry made a pastoral visit to Iraq.In January, Bishop Kicanas visited the Holy Land and Egypt.In February and March, Archbishop Wenski and I traveled to Venezuela and Cuba. In April, I visited the Holy Land.

Later this year I will make a solidarity visit to Nigeria where churches were bombed on Christmas day last year by a radical group wanting to impose Shariah law.I will also attend the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences meeting in Vietnam where the government continues to restrict the role of the Church.

Last August I visited Côte d'Ivoire where the Church and people had undergone a traumatic experience of political division which stretched over decades, equivalently culminating in civil war.The Church there is working to promote dialogue and reconciliation.The local Catholic Conference used my visit to deepen engagement with the new government of a Muslim president.As Côte d'Ivoire introduces authentic representative government, the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders strive to implement religious freedom for all.

In Venezuela the Church is focused on the protection of its rights, especially under the existing Concordat with the Holy See.Concerns include timely reimbursement of teachers' salaries, the right to visit prisoners, and surveillance and intimidation of prominent Church leaders by government agents.These church leaders have been publicly humiliated and suffer much personally.

In Cuba religious freedom is critical to further political development.The public role of the Church and its ability to provide education and social services are crucial to the development of civil society.The Church in Cuba is fostering dialogue and reconciliation, acting as a mediator and defender of human rights.

In the Holy Land Christians are emigrating at an alarming rate.There is a real fear that the Holy Sites will become museums, deprived of a living Christian presence.Local Christians report that the conflict, its economic consequences, and some Israeli security and residency policies put real pressures on the Christian community.

Religious freedom was a major concern in my recent meetings in Rome with Archbishop Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States, and Cardinal Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Emphasis was placed on the role of the United States, especially in providing leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.Moreover, Archbishop Mamberti stressed the need to work to maintain the presence of as many Christians as possible in the Middle East.

With the support of Cardinal Dolan, USCCB will co-host a major conference on international religious freedom at the Catholic University of America on September 12.

All of this activity is directed at raising the profile of our concern for international religious freedom at the same time that our Conference addresses domestic concerns under the leadership of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.In addition, our committee's work is complemented and made possible by the indispensable partnership with Catholic Relief Services and the worldwide network of Caritas International of which CRS is a part.CRS, the U.S. Bishops' International Relief Agency, truly represents the compassionate face of Christ in enhancing the dignity of our brothers and sisters in the human family.

As these few examples demonstrate, religious freedom faces unique challenges in different countries.For this reason, our International Committee consults with the local Church.Sometimes public action is required; at other times quiet diplomacy.Consultation helps ensure that our efforts are effective and do not inadvertently cause more harm than good. At times it is not helpful to receive public expressions of support from the United States because of the U.S. government's role in a particular situation.

Today's panel on international religious freedom will give us bishops an opportunity to hear from an expert on international religious freedom and from a courageous bishop in a country suffering violence.

Dr. Thomas F. Farr is Director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a Visiting Associate Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University. A leading authority on international religious freedom, he has published widely, including "Diplomacy in an Age of Faith" in Foreign Affairs, and "World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security." Dr. Farr received his Ph.D. in modern British and European history from the University of North Carolina.After a distinguished career in the US Army and the Foreign Service, Dr. Farr served as the first director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2003. In that capacity he traveled widely to promote religious liberty, engaging religious communities, government officials, and the victims of religious persecution.

After Dr. Farr speaks we will be privileged to hear a witness from Iraq's suffering Church.The Most Reverend Shlemon Warduni is Titular Bishop of Anbar of the Chaldeans and Curia Bishop of Babylon of the Chaldeans.In that capacity he serves as the Auxiliary Bishop of the Patriarchate of Babylon and as President of Caritas Iraq, the aid agency of the local Church.Bishop Warduni entered seminary in 1954 and went to Rome to Study in 1961.He was ordained a priest in 1968.He holds a Masters in Philosophy and Theology, a Masters in Oriental Church History, and a Doctorate in Philosophy, specializing in education.From 1978 to 1997 he was a Seminary rector and was consecrated a bishop in 2001.

Bishop Kicanas and Bishop Murry had the pleasure of meeting Bishop Warduni in Baghdad when they visited in October 2011.Bishop Warduni will offer reflections from his experience as a bishop in Iraq.His witness has the credibility of a local pastor shepherding a flock in treacherous terrain.

Following both presentations, we hope to have some time for questions and answers.

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