My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Each year since 1996, the President of the United States has declared January 16 as Religious Freedom Day. It would seem odd that a special day needs to be dedicated to understanding that religious liberty is a fundamental human right, as found in the universal declaration of human rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly many years ago. We see around the world, however, constant infringement on the religious freedom of individuals, sometimes by governments and other times by groups within a nation who seem not to understand this fundamental human right. The goal of this observance is to protect and promote religious expression and rights around the world. The persecution of people because of their religious belief is, unfortunately, too common in the world today.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council approved Dignitatis humanae, the Declaration of Religious Liberty. The document defends religious freedom based on the teaching of the Church on human dignity. It teaches that “Religious freedom is the cornerstone of a society that promotes human dignity. It is a fundamental human right, for it follows on the duty of all people to seek the truth about God.”
It is unfortunate that some nations interpret religious freedom as the freedom to worship, meaning the worship within a church, temple, synagogue or mosque. But that right of external religious expression of conscience is limited to the walls of a place of worship. It is even more important that religious liberty extends beyond worship to the fundamental right of a person to exercise their religion in the society in which they are born or where they live.
If this right were respected, there would be greater peace throughout the world. Unfortunately, religious freedom is not understood by many, which causes the vast array of civil disturbances and wars that we find over the centuries and, indeed, today. Respect for the belief of others is fundamental to finding peace in the world.
Recently, the Diocese of Brooklyn joined Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic charity dedicated to the support of suffering and persecuted Christians, in their Red Wednesday campaign. It was a day that endeavored to draw attention to the plight of those who are persecuted and oppressed for their religious beliefs. Cathedrals, churches, and public buildings around the world lit up in red to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Msgr. Kieran Harrington, Vicar for Communications, serves as chaplain for ACN United States. This Christmas, our annual Christmas tree lighting at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, sponsored by the DeSales Media Group, featured a 32-foot tree decorated with thousands of red lights, and the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph had several thousand red ribbons hanging from its portico, all to remind us of the blood that is being shed today by those who suffer religious persecution throughout the world.
We cannot lull ourselves into thinking that this is only present beyond the limits of our country. Unfortunately, anti-religious sentiment is fostered at times in the media and in certain laws on the state and federal levels that do not recognize the right of conscience and expression of religious belief. It is important that we recognize threats to religious liberty and assert the right to freedom of religion and worship, as well as the freedom of conscience.
On January 16 each year, our Nation puts out into the deep the need to defend our religious liberty, which is true and centered on the good. Join me today as we pray for a continued openness in our own country and elsewhere to our national Religious Freedom Day.