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Will Rome be the new world capital for religious freedom?

Time will tell if a new a new freedom of conscience initiative will last

Rome recently launched an “Observatory on Religious Freedom,” an initiative aimed at making Rome the “reference point for the defense of religious freedom in the world.”

This initiative is supported by the mayor of Rome, the Roman Catholic pontiff, Vatican officials and several international diplomats. According to news reports, the observatory is a conference “dedicated to the status and protection of Christian minorities in the world.”

I had mixed feelings as I considered this report. Four years ago, I shared a similar dream with my colleagues as we met together for an International Religious Liberty Association Meeting of Experts. I asked, “Where could we organize a World Forum on Religious Freedom in a city that has long associations with the cause of religious liberty?” We considered possibilities – perhaps Richmond, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, America’s well-known “fathers of freedom”; La Rochelle, in France, in memory of the persecuted Huguenots; Geneva, Switzerland; or Toronto, Canada.

But we never considered Rome. We knew that throughout its long history, Rome has been more commonly associated with religious repression than with religious freedom.

For more than three centuries, the emperors of Rome pursued brutal campaigns against Christian believers and against the church. Even after the Christianization of the Roman Empire, religious persecution didn’t go away; only the identity of the victims changed. For the next millennium, non-Christians, dissidents and heretics became the targets of Rome’s repression.

There’s no doubt that the situation has changed dramatically. Since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has become more open to the right of individuals to choose their religion. Several Pontifical statements in recent decades have affirmed this ideal.

But as an institution, the Catholic Church’s conversion to the cause of religious freedom came late in the game – many years after the groundbreaking work of religious groups, including the Mennonites, Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists. The Catholic Church began to embrace religious freedom some 70 years after the IRLA was chartered by Adventist leaders, and more than 15 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was voted in Paris on December 10, 1948.

So are latecomers to religious freedom now preparing to lead the way? And if so, is this is a positive development?

It depends. Religious liberty around the world today needs as many defenders as it can muster, regardless of their historical track record. If a church or organization expresses its unqualified support for the right of individuals to believe and worship freely, this can only be a positive development.

But questions still remain if Rome, through this new initiative, will truly defend the rights of everyone, no matter what their faith tradition. It must demonstrate that will be a passionate voice for people such as persecuted evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, as well as for the rights of “mainstream,” traditional churches.

Last year, we saw the Russian Orthodox Church – not historically known for its zeal in defending religious freedom for all – organize a symposium in Moscow focusing on the persecution of Christian minorities around the world. The IRLA chapter in Russia, which has held successful meetings and symposiums in Moscow every year since the collapse of the communist regime, welcomed this new initiative by country’s dominant religion.

Times may be changing. Voices that have historically been muted when it comes to the rights of religious minorities may indeed be preparing to become active religious freedom advocates.

Only time will tell if the Observatory on Religious Freedom will push Rome forward as an international "religious freedom capital." And only time will tell if Rome intends to champion a broad notion of religious freedom, which reflects the ideal articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

—John Graz is Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association, a non-sectarian organization, which was established in 1893.