Defend freedom of conscience, Pope urges
by Joanna Moorhead WORLD leaders must do all they can to respect freedom of conscience and the rights of minorities in their countries, says Pope John Paul in his message for the World Day of Peace, January 1.
In the message the Pontiff makes what he terms a "special and urgent appeal" to heads of government and those in authority to "ensure by every means necessary the authentic freedom of conscience of all those who live within the limits of their jurisdictions, and pay special attention to the rights of minorities.
"Besides being an issue of justice, this serves to promote the development of a peaceful and harmonious society," says John Paul. And "it goes without saying that states are bound by a strict moral and legal obligation to observe international agreements which they have signed".
The Pope laments the continued existence of religious repression in some parts of the world. It is, he says, "urgently necessary at this moment of history" to strenthen judicial instruments which can promote freedom of conscience in social and political life. "The gradual and constant development of an internationally recognised legal order could well provide one of the surest bases for the peace and orderly progress of the human family," he says.
The Pope traditionally issues a lengthy statement to mark the World Day of Peace, which is celebrated by Catholics in other parts of the globe on January I, but in England and Wales on February 3. As his theme this year he has chosen the importance of safeguarding freedom of conscience, particularly religious freedom of conscience.
The 18-page statement-clearly draws heavily on the opening of eastern Europe which has taken place during this year and last, although John Paul does not refer to any part of the world specifically in his message.
He claims that "the events of last year" show very clearly that a person may not be treated "as a kind of object governed solely by forces outside of his or her control", but that each individual is responsible for forming his or her own conscience and for respecting the ideals and beliefs of others.
Various agencies affect the formation of conscience, says the Pope: among them, parents, school teachers and journalists have particular responsibilities. In the sphere of learning, religious education has a special role, he points out, and states must therefore guarantee the rights of communities of believers to educate their young.
John Paul also talks about the threat to peace posed by intolerance. Each person has the right to follow his or her conscience and to profess and practise his of her faith, he stresses. In a passage which clearly seems directed to some eastern European countries, he notes that "paradoxically, those who were once victims of various forms of intolerance can in their turn be in danger of creating new situations of intolerance.
"In certain parts of the world, the end of long years of repression — years when the conscience of individuals was not respected and everything that was most precious to the person was stifled — must not prove an occasion for new forms of intolerance, no matter how difficult reconciliation with the former oppressor may be."
The Pope speaks of the difficult task of respecting the many different traditions, customs, ways of life and religious obligations which exist in many countries today.