Religious freedom – a condition for peace
This year, Pope Benedict XVI devoted his Message for the World Day of Peace to the question of religious freedom. His message begins and ends with references to the tragic events in Baghdad where, last 31 October, during the celebration of Holy Mass, two priests and more than fifty faithful were slain. These days, religious freedom in the world does not provide sufficient protection. This is particularly true for people who are followers of Jesus Christ and who “at present, ... are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith.” 
Additional proof of this fact came from the attacks that took place later on during the Christmas holidays.
The Pope also spoke on the situation in the western world, where religion is steadily becoming more marginalised.
Alongside the cases of open persecution there also exist “more sophisticated forms of hostility to religion which, in Western countries, occasionally find expression in a denial of history and the rejection of religious symbols which reflect the identity and the culture of the majority of citizens. Often these forms of hostility also foster hatred and prejudice; they are inconsistent with a serene and balanced vision of pluralism and the secularity of institutions, to say nothing of the fact that coming generations risk losing contact with the priceless spiritual heritage of their countries.”
Obviously it is not possible to compare the level of guarantee of religious freedom in the Near and Middle East with the situation in Europe. Christians in Iraq can only hanker after the degree of religious freedom that exists in EU countries. But even here in the EU the situation is not ideal; indeed, the initiatives referred to prove that it is either becoming increasingly difficult or that general awareness of restrictions, limitations and difficulties is growing. Each limitation of religious freedom imposed on Christians is not necessarily a sign of bad faith. Sometimes, as in the case of the elimination of the Christmas holy days (now termed ‘end year holiday’) from the European Diary published by the European Commission, this appears to be the outcome of thoughtlessness or insufficient grounding in European culture on the part of the people directly responsible for this decision. Sometimes such an attitude is a side effect of a non-discrimination policy which has not been properly thought through and which, while attempting to protect some people, actually discriminates against others.
Can it be, perhaps, that Christians are speaking out because they are being over-sensitive or feeling vulnerable? After all references to Christianity’s historic role had been cut out of the preamble to the Constitutional Treaty, after the European Court of Human Rights’ decision on crucifixes in Italian schools, and after the attempt by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to restrict conscientious objection (the McCafferty Report), the heightened sensitivity of Christians is perfectly understandable. Even though there is abundant evidence of discrimination, it would be regrettable if Christians descended into self pity. Better to regard the difficulties being encountered as an opportunity to bear witness to Christ.
Benedict XVI ended his message by saying: “I also express my hope that in the West, and especially in Europe, there will be an end to hostility and prejudice against Christians because they are resolved to orient their lives in a way consistent with the values and principles expressed in the Gospel. May Europe rather be reconciled to its own Christian roots, which are fundamental for understanding its past, present and future role in history; in this way it will come to experience justice, concord and peace by cultivating a sincere dialogue with all peoples.”
However, the Pope also mentioned some encouraging signs such as – finally – the European Council’s adoption of a Resolution protecting the rights of medical personnel to conscientious objection in the face of certain acts (such as abortion) which seriously violate the right to life; then there is the support given by several European countries to the Italian Government in the cause of the visibility of crucifixes in public spaces; and finally the political foresight recently demonstrated by several European countries in their demand for a concerted response from the European Union in the matter of protecting Christians in the Middle East.