Here in the United States we begin summer with the observance of our own Independence Day on July 4. We proudly celebrate our freedom as a nation. We Catholics and our many friends conclude our observance of the Fortnight for Freedom on the Fourth of July this year, 14 days of praying for, proclaiming and protecting the religious freedom which is so much a part of our American heritage.

Some of you have shared with me how distressing it is that you have Catholic friends and neighbors for whom the preservation of religious liberty is not such an important issue. Dr. John Garvey, the President of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has readily observed that “the mechanisms to preserve religious liberty only work when people care about their religion. Religious liberty will expand or contract accordingly.” Saving religious liberty means reminding people that they should love God.

Hopefully that message has been proclaimed loudly and clearly in churches across this land, especially during the recent Fortnight.  The freedom to love God is worth any fight.  It is a fight that many of our friends across the globe have undertaken and still bear the scars because of their battles.

Every year on a Sunday close to the Fourth of July, this year, Sunday, July 8, the Vietnamese community here in the Pacific Northwest celebrates a Freedom Mass at the National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother in Portland.  They do so to thank God for the gift of the freedom they now enjoy here in the United States, a freedom to be God’s people, secure in their faith and eager to proclaim it publicly and share it with others. I am always thrilled to be able to preside at that Mass.  I wish that many more of our ethnic groups would be as aware as the Vietnamese people are of the gift that religious freedom is and how easily it can be lost, especially when, while quietly under attack, its acceptance is taken for granted.  The Communists were clever in promoting personal liberty as if it were in conflict with religious liberty.  Secularists of our own day seem to have the same plan of action.

At the recent bishops’ meeting in Atlanta, a bishop from Iraq, Most Rev. Shlemon Warduni, spoke to the assembly about the loss of religious freedom in his own country.  He outlined the history of the church in Iraq, one that can be traced back to the very first century. At one time there were 80 million Chaldean Christians. But the number gradually became smaller and smaller, now diminished to approximately 400,000. In the past Christians and Muslims had lived together, not in perfect harmony, but with mutual respect.  

Ever since the war of 2003, Christians have been greatly harmed, losing one bishop, a priest and six subdeacons as a result of assassinations.  Fifteen priests have been kidnapped and many more were tortured. More than 20 churches have been attacked.  The high point occurred when Our Lady of Deliverance Cathedral in Baghdad was attacked and more than 45 persons were murdered, including two young priests.  In many other places in Iraq Christians have suffered and, as a result, people have no trust in anybody and Christians continue to leave the country with many criticizing the church for not having helped them.

The bishop called for our government to do all it can to encourage tolerance and respect in Iraq. He said his people want only peace, security and freedom.  Iraq was once very rich but now is very poor, because of the war and much discrimination. The Christian families and communities are now spread out in a huge diaspora.  He begged us bishops to do what we can to help Iraqi Christians live in an honorable status with their just rights. Freedom of religion for Christians is clearly no longer a value in Iraq.

Dr. Thomas Farr also spoke about the global crisis of religious liberty. He is a convert to Catholicism and now teaches in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.  He has written extensively on the subject and pointed out how religious liberty is indeed in global crisis, with enormous consequences for the church, the success of democracy and the cause of international justice and peace.  

Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in countries in which religious freedom is either highly or very highly restricted.  Most of these people live in 66 countries. Most are either Muslim-majority nations, Communist regimes such as China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam, or large non-Muslim states such as India, Burma and Russia.  The problem is getting worse instead of better.  Religious minorities who suffer the most in this matter are Christians. They were harassed in 130 nations. Muslims were a close second at 117. This is especially true in Afghanistan and Iraq, places where American blood has been spilled and American treasures have been spent in the last 10 years. Persecution has returned to both nations with a vengeance.

In Europe, it is not so much physical violence as social hostility to religion which is rising. The United Kingdom now stands alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia in the category of “high” social hostilities. The restrictions of the French government have moved France ahead of Cuba in that category. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the rejection of religious liberty is not simply resulting from authoritarian regimes in places like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but from democratic majorities in other nations. These nations are unwilling to embrace the core principle of religious freedom, which is full equality under the law in private and in public matters for all religious individuals and institutions. It seems that we are now witnessing a new face of tyranny at home and abroad, a “tyranny of democracy.”

At a recent major conference in Oxford, a Catholic bishop from Scotland noted that one of his priests had expressed fear after having watched a television program with audience participation.  The audience agreed that when same-sex marriage becomes the law in the United Kingdom, dissenters should be “pursued by the law.”  It reminds us of laws in the UK back in the late eighteenth century, which criminalized the existence of priests and the Mass, including the public expression of Catholic teachings.    

At this critical time in world history, the church has some important responsibilities.  We need to proclaim loudly and widely the great truths taught by our Catholic tradition concerning human life, marriage and caring for the poor.  We need to oppose vigorously arguments that go against these truths.  This week our nation celebrates its freedom.  But as we do, some of our most precious freedoms, including the freedom of religion, are in peril. Advocacy for religious liberty cannot be the exclusive work of the clergy.  It is the work of the whole church.  May God bless all of us as we passionately pursue liberty and justice for all, here and across the globe.