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VATICAN LETTER Jul-7-2006 (650 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Religious freedom: human right, not a bargaining chip

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- By calling on predominantly Muslim nations to exercise "reciprocity" by recognizing the rights of Christians, Pope Benedict XVI has been portrayed as taking a tough stance on Islam.

But Vatican officials and outside observers have pointed out that in Vatican usage the term reciprocity has a different meaning than it usually has in relations between states.

When Pope Benedict XVI invokes reciprocity in asking Muslim nations to respect the religious freedom of Catholics, he is stating an expectation, not bargaining or making a threat, a Vatican diplomat explained.

Reciprocity is a term used in diplomatic relations for provisions two countries agree to make for each other's citizens. For example, two nations can make a reciprocal agreement that their citizens do not need visas to visit each other's countries.

But religious freedom is not a provision or a concession; it is a human right.

"When we say 'reciprocity' it is not, 'We will give your people religious freedom if you give ours religious freedom, and if you do not, we will take it away,'" the Vatican diplomat said.

"Perhaps 'reciprocity' is not the best word," he said.

"If Saudi Arabia does not allow the construction of churches," which it does not, "we are not going to stop our dialogue or try to keep Muslims out of Italy," he said. Invoking reciprocity "is not a threat -- we respect religious freedom and we expect others to respect it as well."

In a mid-May talk to a Vatican meeting on migration to and from predominantly Muslim nations, Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of reciprocity as a "relationship founded on mutual respect" and as an "attitude of heart and of spirit."

He referred to a 2004 document from the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, "Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi" ("The Love of Christ Toward Migrants"), which described reciprocity as a concept that could enable people of different religions "to live together everywhere with equal rights and duties."

The document said, "Healthy reciprocity will urge each one to become an 'advocate' for the rights of minorities when his or her own religious community is in the majority."

In other words, the Catholic Church calls on its members to defend the rights of Muslim migrants and urges the Muslim migrants to defend the rights of Christians in Muslim homelands.

The Catholic Church recognizes and defends the right to religious freedom not only for the benefit of its own members, but because it believes each human being was created by God and must be free to seek the truth about God.

Because of possible confusion surrounding the meaning of the term in international diplomacy and in the Vatican's usage, U.S. Jesuit Thomas Michel, head of the Jesuit Secretariat for Interreligious Dialogue, said he thinks the Vatican should stop using the term reciprocity in relation to religious freedom.

"Religious freedom is not negotiable. It is not dependent on how people treat some of us," he said.

"I do not think reciprocity is a Christian attitude," Father Michel said. "The Gospel never said, 'Do unto others as some members of one group do unto yours.'"

As for urging Muslims in Europe to pressure their home governments to respect the religious freedom of Christians, he said, "Muslims in Western Europe are not responsible for what is happening to Christians in some Muslim countries."

Father Michel said it seems more effective to support full religious freedom for Muslims in Europe -- including building mosques, hiring imams and educating their children in their faith -- and have that experience as a concrete example to share with Muslim dialogue partners.

Besides, he said, when Catholics support the construction of a mosque, "we are not being kind to Muslims, we are respecting their right to religious freedom. It is not negotiable or conditioned on how Christians are treated in some Muslim countries."

"You do not use worship of God as a bargaining chip," he said.


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