BRITAIN – On February 9, 2017, Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal was invited to participate in a debate about Religious Rights entitled “This House Believes Religious Freedom Supersedes Civil Liberties”.  Speakers in opposition were Nia Griffith MP,  Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and Imam Ajmal Masroor, Leading British Imam and television personality. Below is the full intervention of His Beatitude. 

  “This House holds that Freedom of Religion supersedes Civil Liberties” DEBATE

Oxford Union, picture posted on Twitter, February 9, 2017 https://twitter.com/oxfordunion

Mister President,

Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you this evening. And thank you for having this Oxford Debate Union that ensures Freedom of Speech. Congratulations!

The topic for tonight’s debate is controversial. It will help therefore if there is clear understanding of the topic’s terms:

Let me start by saying what Freedom of Religion is not:

  1. Freedom of Religion is not the same as Freedom of worship. The United Nations Declaration of 1981 states “The right of religious freedom shall include

– freedom to have a religion … of whatever belief of a person’s choice, and

– freedom, either individually, or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

.Clearly, freedom of religion does not mean to keep one’s religion a private affair. In Arabic we say, “You don’t keep religion in the sacristy or rectory”.

-Freedom of Religion does not mean the establishment of a Government religion. But it does mean that Religion is free from Government interference: To retard or obstruct it or its adherents’ progress.

In earlier times, some countries had Christian, Muslim and Hindu governments. And it is a sad fact that in some places religion is very much tied up with violence because, in the words of Archbishop Temple, “When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.”  The Christian Scriptures warn that, “the time is coming when anyone who kills you, will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me (John 16:2-3).

Likewise, Nationalism and purely secular governments have also at times gone very wrong.

  1. What Freedom of Religion is.

Here in the UK,  The Human Rights Act of 1998  incorporated Article 9 of the  European Convention of Human Rights.    It states that:

9.1     Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

9.2     Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs, shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law,   and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

In practice almost any restriction on freedom of religious observance, can be justified under the explanations stated.

Freedom of Religion is a fundamental right that, in the words of the Second Vatican Council document,  ” Human Dignity”, “has its foundation not in the subjective attitude of the individual, but in his very nature”. As such governments do not grant it, but must protect it.

Pope Francis, speaking in Philadelphia, said: “Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our conscience dictates. But religious freedom, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.”

–  Religious freedom is for all; believers and nonbelievers. Properly speaking, it is “freedom of belief.” In our Arab-Muslim context, religious freedom is restricted. It is our Christian charity that speaks loudest; charity towards refuges, sick, poor, elderly. At least, we can freely practice this form of religion without constraint. It is the best language that all can understand.

–   Religious Freedom is not only about religious beliefs that you hold in your heart but don’t express. It also includes the freedom to express ideas in public. Even the freedom to persuade another individual to freely change his religious affiliation

That is why, Freedom of Belief cannot be separated from Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Association.

This fundamental teaching of the Catholic Faith states: “all men should be immune from coercion on the part of […] every human power, so that, within due limits, nobody is impeded from acting according to his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others”(DH, #2).

This teaching rests on three principles:

  1. All persons are endowed with human dignity.
  2. Humans have the moral responsibility to seek the truth. And once they know the truth must live according to it. In this regard, the Christian scriptures ask for good will and a clear conscience in seeking the truth, “You shall know the truth, and truth will set you free”. It further adds: “Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God”; and “You were called to freedom, brothers. Yet, do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather serve one another through love” (Galatians 5: 13).
  1. Humans only fulfill this obligation, if they are free from external coercion. The State’s obligation is to not hinder persons in seeking truth and in practicing their faith.

Finally, as we are speaking about rights, a word about The Nature of a Right is fitting.

No one has a right to something by the very fact that he wants it or claims it, or that somebody else would like him to have it. Whatever is ordered to a person as belonging to their human nature is theirs by right.

Freedom of religious belief must co-exist with the rights of others. However when there are conflicting rights, it must be a balancing of rights: both PRAGMATIC AND PRINCIPLED (PRINCIPELD). 

PRAGMATIC BALANCING, centers on the need to carefully measure competing interests. This approach reflects a compromise position. And it proceeds in a case-by-case manner.

PRINCIPLED  (principled) BALANCING emphasizes the values and defines the extent of each right. This avoids conflict as much as possible. It puts forward overriding concerns that will apply to all cases and all contexts.

So, we come to the main issue:

From a theological and philosophical point of viewreligious freedom supersedes civil liberties. In the words of a former Supreme Court Justice,  “Religious freedom is too sacred a right to be restricted or prohibited in any degree, without convincing proof that a legitimate interest of the state is in grave danger.” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy)

From a Political-Legal point of view, it’s clear that the Politicians and the Judges will decide in practice if Religious Freedom supersedes civil liberties or not.

However, as Bishop of the Catholic Faith, I believe that when divine and human rights conflict, Freedom of Religion supersedes, Civil Liberties, though they are complementary, because for the Christian believer, at least, obedience to God is supreme.

Thank you

+Fouad Twal

Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem

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