Archive - December 2016

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Apology for Rwandan Genocide Comes from Catholic Church
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Good News for Religious Freedom Act
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Atrocity in China
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Religious Freedom: For Me, For Thee, For a Divided America

Apology for Rwandan Genocide Comes from Catholic Church

This past November 20th, the Catholic bishops of Rwanda issued an apology for the Church’s complicity in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The apology and reactions to it are covered in this nice piece in the online Catholic journal, Millennial.

A Church apologizing?  The phenomenon joins a global trend of the last quarter century, namely a sharp historical spike in apologies issued by heads of corporate entities – sovereign states, churches, business corporations – for misdeeds committed in the name of their organization. In the Catholic Church, it was John Paul II who practiced apology most famously, offering over 100 apologies concerning some 21 different historical episodes and people groups.  This excellent book by journalist Luigi Accattoli covers it well.

As the Millennial piece suggests, political apologies are complex and not always well received.  The Rwandan Church’s apology met with sharp criticism from the Rwandan government. One might suspect, though, that this government has narrow political reasons for its stance. Rwanda’s President Kagame can be credited for keeping the peace and promoting development in Rwanda since the genocide but has done so through favoring an elite of the Tutsi minority, repressing political opposition, promoting and enforcing a narrative that blames the genocide exclusively on the majority Hutus and almost entirely avoids acknowledgment of Tutsi crimes, and links the Catholic Church to a narrative of complicity in this genocide. There is much truth to this complicity, of course, as the apology attests and the article explains. Far from the heroic role that the Catholic Church played in standing up to dictatorship and violence in countries like Poland, the Philippines, Chile, and Malawi, the Rwandan Church, including priests and members of the hierarchy, associated themselves closely with leaders who carried out the genocide and in some cases participated in carrying it out. It is also probable, though, that Kagame wishes to maintain the Catholic Church in a position of weakness so that it will not become an alternative center of authority that can challenge the government (as the Church has become in many African countries). By continually insisting on the Church’s guilt and its constant need to atone, Kagame keeps the Church on the defensive and thus crippled in its moral authority.

Political apologies can be strong or weak. Do those articulating them take responsibility for the full range of deeds done? Do they acknowledge the role of powerful members of their hierarchies in the misdeeds and speak for their institutions? Prior to the apology, did those voicing it make efforts to listen to members of the victims’ community and to discover what was desired? How well was the apology received by victims?  Was it answered with forgiveness and reconciliation?

By the first set of criteria – governing performance – the Rwandan Church’s apology seems like a good one. Whether it meets the latter criteria – being well received – is still an open question. The Rwandan government has criticized the apology, but this does not mean that others will not welcome it. We can pray that they do and that it will bring healing, which is ever critical even over 22 years after the genocide.

Good News for Religious Freedom Act

Six days ago Congress passed a bill strengthening the International Religious Freedom Act, which it passed in 1998.  Three days ago, President Obama signed the bill into law.

Here is a piece detailing the good news.

From the piece, here are three features of the law that enhance the religious freedom capacities of the U.S. government:

  • Requiring the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to report directly to the secretary of State;
  • Establishing an “entities of particular concern” category—a companion to the “countries of particular concern” classification used for nearly 20 years by the State Department—for non-government actors, such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram.
  • Instituting a “designated persons list” for individuals who violate religious freedom and authorizing the president to issue sanctions against those who participate in persecution.

Let us now urge President-Elect Trump to appoint a strong Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom — though it would be hard to improve upon the present one, Rabbi David Saperstein.

Atrocity in China

A piece in the Boston Globe today by Jeff Jacoby floored me.   He reports an atrocity in China — the government is killing more than ten thousand  prisoners every year by harvesting their organs while they are alive and then selling the organs.  The story, Jacoby reports, is being aired through two new films.

Here is how he describes that is happening:

The evidence, assembled by human-rights researchers and investigative journalists, added up to something unimaginable: China was killing enormous numbers of imprisoned men and women by strapping them down to operating tables, still conscious, and forcibly extracting their organs — and then delivering those organs to the hospital transplant centers that have become a major source of revenue.

To boot, those being killed are people being persecuted for their religious beliefs:

Chinese officials claim that organs come from violent criminals on death row. But “Human Harvest” makes it clear that most of those killed are peaceful citizens persecuted for their beliefs: Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians — and, above all, practitioners of Falun Gong, a Buddhist-style spiritual movement of peaceful meditation and ethical commitment.

Here is what he says about the two new films:

This week, two extraordinary Canadian films — one a chilling documentary, the other a riveting drama based on its findings — were released for sale on iTunes. Directed by Leon Lee, the films illuminate what may be the most depraved of all systematic human-rights atrocities in the world today: China’s industrial-scale harvesting of vital organs from prisoners of conscience, to be transplanted into patients paying exorbitant fees for a heart, kidney, or liver made available on demand.

The documentary, “Human Harvest,” won the coveted Peabody Award for its exposé of an unspeakable crime against humanity.

And more on the drama:

Hence Lee’s newest movie: a feature-length thriller, “The Bleeding Edge.”

The film stars Anastasia Lin, a gifted Chinese-Canadian actress who also happens to be the reigning Miss World Canada. She plays Chen Jing, a young Falun Gong practitioner who is jailed and brutally tortured for her refusal to “transform.” A simultaneous plot line follows James Branton (played by Jay Clift), a hard-charging tech entrepreneur whose heart collapses while on a business trip to China to close a major deal with the government. Branton receives an emergency transplant that saves his life — and motivates him to find out how a suitable organ could have been located so quickly.

Lin drew international headlines last year when she was forbidden to enter China, where the 2015 Miss World pageant was being held. For Lin, who was born and lived in China until she was 13, beauty pageants are a means of calling attention to human-rights abuses in her native land, and Beijing was intent on denying her a Chinese platform from which to speak.

This deserves attention!

Religious Freedom: For Me, For Thee, For a Divided America

This essay first appeared in the Irish Rover at the University of Notre Dame, December 1, 2016.

Donald Trump’s victory on November 8th has elicited deeper divisions than perhaps any U.S. election result since 1860, when the Civil War loomed.  Furious demonstrations, calls for violence from both sides, and a surge of assaults on minorities ignited by Trump’s campaign rhetoric make clear that if the Republic is going to function civilly as a democracy for the next four years, Americans who are bitterly divided must find a basis on which to live and deliberate together.  No mere truce will do.  We are divided by principles, so only a principle that we can all endorse can help us contest our positions peacefully.

One principle, kneaded into the American founding, long regarded as part of our collective heritage, yet called into question as of late, can help us a great deal: religious freedom.  Religion is far from the only source of our divisions.  Class, race, and the status of immigrants obviously featured prominently in the election.  Religion, however, persisted as a fault line, much to the surprise of analysts who thought its relevance had faded.  At stake in the election were not only religious concerns but the very freedom of Americans to express and practice their religion.

Both left and right rued compromises of this freedom.  Among the minority groups against whom Trump stoked resentment through his skillful demagoguery, Muslims stood out.  Shunning the United States’ heritage, exemplary among Western countries, of integrating Muslims into our common life as citizens and economic actors, an achievement enabled in no small part by our tradition of religious freedom, Trump promised to bar Muslims from entry into the United States and thus expanded Americans’ legitimate worries about terrorism into a fear of all Muslims.  His proposal was a form of discrimination that violated the spirit, if not the strict letter, of religious freedom and instigated acts that violated religious freedom directly.  An FBI report of mid-November showed that hate crimes in the U.S. have surged as of late and most acutely against Muslims.  Among people who did not vote for Trump – like myself – his incitement of such animus was chief among our objections.

Religion and religious freedom, though, were also on the minds of those – like myself – who did not pull the lever for Clinton.  Trump received a record 81% of white evangelical votes and won 56% – 40% among weekly churchgoers.  In Clinton, these voters perceived a commitment to continue the Obama administration’s aggressive secularism.  This perception offers an explanation for why Clinton lost the commanding lead that she enjoyed among Catholics in summer 2016, only to lose to Trump among Catholics, 52-45%, on Election Day.  In the interim, e-mails hacked from the Democratic campaign revealed cynical and condescending plans to divide and conquer Catholics voters, while Trump wrote a letter to Catholics speaking to their concerns about life and freedom that played well in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the other Rust Belt states critical to his victory.

At the core of the Obama Administration’s aggressive secularism have been its sharp curtailments of the religious liberty of Americans in the realms of life, marriage, and sexuality.  Through administrative decrees, judicial appointments, and the pedagogical power of the presidential podium, the administration imposed and inculcated restrictions of the sort that Pope Francis has termed “polite persecution,” implying that they are similar in kind, if not in degree, to far more serious persecution.  Motivated by a secular ideology, they involve the imposition of serious material costs on Christian believers on account of their commitment to traditional Christian teachings. The costs have been borne by merchants, universities, schools, hospitals, charities, campus fellowships, students, public officials, employees, and citizens, who have been variously fired, fined, denied accreditation, evicted from campuses, seen their businesses ruined, and otherwise barred from living out their convictions.

While the mandate of the Health and Human Services Department, challenged by the Little Sisters of the Poor in the U.S. Supreme Court, stands as the most famous of these impositions, many others have been applied at other levels of government and by a wide range of institutions.  Combined, the restrictions amount to the largest curtailment of religious freedom in the history of the Republic, a judgment derived from factoring together the number of these restrictions, their frequency, the number of people to whom they apply, and the scope of affairs that they restrict, including norms of marriage and sexuality held by every society, every religion, until 11:59 pm on the clock of history.

Americans who disregard the religious freedom of other Americans, or of citizens of other countries, are afflicted with amnesia.  They have forgotten that religious freedom is in the First Amendment to our Constitution, and in our heritage.  Religious freedom has enabled religious people who were persecuted elsewhere to find not only refuge but also equality of citizenship in the United States: Mennonites, Amish, Mormons, Muslims, Methodists, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In other times and places, too, the principle of religious freedom has been instrumental in ending strife and establishing peace among people divided by religious convictions.  The Emperor Constantine, influenced by the great Christian philosopher, Lactantius, declared religious freedom in the Roman Empire just following the colossal Diocletian Persecution.  Theologians and philosophers in Europe and colonial America in the 17th and 18th centuries articulated religious freedom as a principle by which Catholics and various and fractious Protestants could live together in peace.

A principle that establishes peace among people who differ over what they believe to be most important is one that Americans would do well not to forget at this moment.  Citizens wanting to make America great again should remember that welcoming religious (and other) minorities is what made America great in the first place.  Citizens wanting to advance new norms of marriage and sexuality should affirm that those who believe traditional norms to be the contours of God’s love must not be fired or fined for conducting their lives accordingly.  If religious freedom is for anyone, it must be for everyone.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.