5 years on, what has Pope Francis done for religious freedom?

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Pope Francis welcomes Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, during a private audience in Vatican, 7 November 2017. (AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO / Handout)

Pope Francis greets people during his inauguration on 19 March 2013.

Pope Francis, the son of Italian migrants, appeared on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica five years ago to be introduced as the first Latin American pontiff. Below, World Watch Monitor looks at a few of the highlights of his tenure so far, and his impact on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) around the world.

Pope Francis has met with some of those who know what it is to be vulnerable to persecution because of their Christian faith. Just last month, he spoke with Rebecca Bitrus, a Nigerian woman who suffered terrible abuse after her capture by Boko Haram in 2014, and also the family of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman on death row for blasphemy since 2010.

Previously, in 2015, a Vatican parish took in a Christian refugee family from Syria after Pope Francis had called on religious communities across Europe to assist in the migrant crisis.

At the start of this year, Pope Francis told the Diplomatic Corps at the Vatican: “It is well-known that the right to religious freedom is often disregarded, and not infrequently religion becomes either an occasion for the ideological justification of new forms of extremism, or a pretext for the social marginalisation of believers, if not their downright persecution.”

He added that, in the name of protecting human rights, “somewhat paradoxically, there is a risk that … we will see the rise of modern forms of ideological colonisation by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable”.

Building peace

Pope Francis welcomes Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, during a private audience in Vatican, 7 November 2017. (AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO / Handout)
Pope Francis welcomes Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, during a private audience in the Vatican, 7 November 2017. (AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO / Handout)

The 266th Pope of the Catholic Church named himself after St. Francis of Assisi, a man known for a life dedicated to poverty and peace, and the new Francis has made peace-building one of his own hallmarks.

“Religions, with their spiritual and moral resources, have a specific and unique role to play in building peace. They cannot be neutral, much less ambiguous, where peace is concerned,” he told delegates at the Vatican’s World Conference of Religions for Peace in October 2017.

“There is a need for a common and cooperative effort on the part of the religions in promoting an integral ecology that includes promoting respect for human dignity and care for creation.”

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in India, told Crux ahead of the pontiff’s five-year anniversary: “Pope Francis underlines the importance of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions.”

He added that Francis “never tires of saying” that “we are called to promote a culture of dialogue by every possible means and thus to rebuild the fabric of society”.

While visiting Egypt in May 2017, Pope Francis said “violence is the denial of every true religion” and called on religious leaders not to hesitate in exposing violence and its perpetrators.

His visit seemed to inspire a more vigilant approach to religious hate speech against Christians, as an Islamic cleric was charged for uttering anti-Christian comments in his TV show, and a new church was built with Muslim support.

Building bridges

Pope Francis has raised the plight of persecuted Christians with dozens of heads of states, travelling to more than 30 countries.

He is the first Pope to have ever visited Myanmar, a staunchly Buddhist country, where he had to walk a religious and diplomatic tightrope around the Rohingya crisis. But Christians in the country said they hoped “to get peace through the Pope’s visit, as we believe he will raise peace issues and push the country’s leaders for ending ethnic conflicts”.

The Pope has also sought to repair relations with fellow religious leaders. During a visit to Turkey in November 2014, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, issued a joint statement in which they said that constructive dialogue with Islamic leaders was necessary if peace was to be achieved for the Middle East and the persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians addressed. They also initiated an annual event about religious freedom to highlight the situation of Christians in the Middle East, which is now held every December.

Pope Francis has also actively sought resumption of dialogue with Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning, after relations between Sunni Islam and the Catholic Church had been broken off five years earlier. Pope Francis and the university’s grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, met in May 2016. Since then two more meetings have taken place, with Francis speaking at a peace conference hosted by the sheikh in May 2017 and, five months later, the Pope receiving the sheikh at the Vatican for a private meeting, ahead of an interfaith-dialogue conference later that day.

Pope Francis also met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana in February 2016, the first meeting between leaders of the two churches since the Schism of 1054. Such an encounter had been discussed for decades and was finally arranged because of a shared concern for Christians in the Middle East. At their meeting, the pair signed a joint declaration, in which they referenced the persecution of Christians.

And in December 2017, Francis met with leaders from the World Evangelical Alliance to discuss further collaboration in promoting religious freedom in a world where persecution of Christians is on the rise.

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