MANILA, January 7, 2011â€”POPE Benedict XVI appealed for religious tolerance amidst surging persecution of Christians and urged the faithful to commit themselves in building a society that ensures freedom of worship as a means to achieve peace in the world.
Allowing everyone to have the freedom of worship is the only way to peace, the Holy Father said.
â€œI implore all men and women of good will to renew their commitment to building a world where all are free to profess their religion or faith, and to express their love of God with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their mind,â€ the pope said in his 2011 World Day of Peace message.
He said he prays â€œespecially for peaceâ€, as he noted how the previous year has been again â€œmarked by persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance.â€
But even as he appealed for peace on New Yearâ€™s Day, media reported of a suicide bombing in Alexandria, Egypt that targeted Christian worshippers leaving a New Yearâ€™s mass at a Coptic Orthodox Church.
The bombing killed at least 21 people and injured several others, according to reports.
The pope made the plea for peace in the light of continued persecution of Christians, especially in countries that suppress freedom of worship.
For anyone to suffer persecution because of religious belief is an affront to God and human dignity, the Holy Father said.
The pope noted in his new yearâ€™s message the violent attack on Iraq Catholics in October 31 last year that killed two priests and over 50 faithful while gathered for the celebration of Holy Mass at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad.
Pope Benedict expressed his closeness to the suffering Christian community who endured more attacks in the aftermath of violence.
â€œMy thoughts turn in a special way to the beloved country of Iraq, which continues to be a theatre of violence and strife as it makes its way towards a future of stability and reconciliation,â€ the pope said.
The Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops held in October discussed the situation of unpeace in the region, encouraging â€œthe Catholic communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East to live in communion and to continue to offer a courageous witness of faith in those lands.â€
The pope said Christians are the most persecuted religious group because of their faith.
â€œMany Christians experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom,â€ he said.
In his Christmas message, the pope especially prayed for the faithful in China to remain steadfast in their faith despite restrictions â€œimposed on their freedom of religion and conscience.â€
Reiterating the message of peace that Christmas brings, the Holy Father prayed for countries who have suffered the most due to injustices, conflicts, natural disasters and political instability.
On Christmas Eve, a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and a marketplace in Jos, Nigeria killed at least 32 people and injured 72 others, according to news reports.
In the Philippines, a Catholic chapel in Jolo exploded while a Mass was being celebrated on Christmas Day, injuring a priest and several churchgoers.
Denouncing the violent attacks in his Dec. 26 Angelus message, the pope renewed his call for peace urging everyone â€œto abandon the path of hatred in order to find peaceful solutions to conflicts and bring security and tranquilityâ€ to all.
Religious freedom, the pope said, is the â€œsynthesis and keystoneâ€ of all fundamental rights and freedoms.
Assuring persecuted Christians of his prayers, the pope called on government authorities to step in, citing the discrimination and religious intolerance being suffered by Christian communities in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Holy Land.
The pope expressed hope for end in hostilities, especially directed towards Christians who are being prejudiced because they chose to live their lives according to gospel values.
Rooted in human dignity
â€œThe right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person,â€ the Holy Father further stressed in his New Yearâ€™s message.
Essential elements of this human dignity are the right to life and the right to religious freedom, the pope said.
He noted not without pain that â€œin some areas of the world it is impossible to profess oneâ€™s religion freely except at the risk of life and personal liberty.â€
The pontiff also decried religious extremism, saying that â€œfanaticism, fundamentalism and practices contrary to human dignity can never be justified, even less so in the name of religion.â€
Calling on people to become peacemakers, especially the young, the pontiff urged them to open their hearts to God to attain â€œauthentic freedom.â€
â€œReligious freedom is an authentic weapon of peace,â€ Pope Benedict said, and â€œit gives hope for a future of justice and peace, even in the face of grave injustice and material and moral poverty.â€
Among other things, the pope’s lengthy New Yearâ€™s message also touched on the interrelationship between religious freedom and mutual respect; the family as the first training ground for freedom and peace; religious freedom as a common patrimony for all; the public dimension of religion; and the need for dialogue between civil and religious institutions. (Pinky Barrientos, FSP)