By Andrew E. Harrod, PhD, Esq.
As previously announced on December 18, 2012, the Catholic Church’s German Bishops Conference has called upon all German Catholics to observe a day of prayer on December 26 in remembrance of persecuted Christians worldwide. This observance follows a June 2012 decision of the conference to observe an annual day of prayer for persecuted Christians, thereby reinstituting a similar day of prayer previously observed until 1994 by the German Catholic Church primarily for Christians persecuted by East European Communist regimes. The chosen second Christmas day, the Feast of St. Stephen, recalls Christianity’s first martyr.
The observance follows statements by Robert Zollitsch, archbishop of Freiburg, Baden-Württemberg, and chairman of the conference, in a December 21, 2012, interview that “Christians currently are the most persecuted religion in the entire world.” Zollitsch thereby echoes earlier controverted statements made by German chancellor Angela Merkel to the German Lutheran Church’s synod on November 5, 2012.
In particular, Zollitsch noted religious repression in Muslim-majority countries. “We must conclude,” he said, “that there is real religious freedom in almost none of the Muslim countries.” The situation of Egypt’s Christians, threatened with the introduction of an Islamic theocracy ruled by sharia, was especially disconcerting to Zollitsch. “We had hoped,” explained Zollitsch, “that a bit of freedom of religion and speech is also coming with the Arab Spring. But now we perceive with the example of Egypt that the development is going rather in the opposite direction.” To counter these trends, Zollitsch called for more efforts from the West, suggesting as an initial measure that tourists refrain from vacationing in religiously repressive countries.
Ludwig Schick, archbishop of Bamberg, Bavaria, and chairman of the Commission for International Church Affairs (Kommission Weltkirche), a kind of foreign minister for the conference, seconded Zollitsch. Schick termed the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria as a “fall or winter of new pressures and persecutions” for Christians. Schick felt that the European Union (EU) “should and could do more” for religious freedom and warned that “there, where there is no freedom of religion, come other freedoms under pressure. Human rights in their entirety are then in danger.” Both Schick and Zollitsch repeated their concerns during their Feast of St. Stephen addresses.
Ironically, Schick had earlier on August 2, 2012, called for a stiffening of laws in Germany against insulting religious beliefs, currently now only applicable in case of a threat to public peace (press coverage in English and German here). Schick argued that insults to religion harmed the human dignity of their followers. The parliamentary leader of the German Green Party, Volker Beck, though, countered that Schick was “acting against democratic freedom rights.” Satire, Beck explained, did not have to please everyone and was not subject to prohibition merely because of offense. “Believers do not need any other criminal code protection against defamation, insult, and incitement than other social groups,” Beck elaborated.
Schick had proposed a blasphemy law after Germany’s leading satire magazine Titanic had published an image of Pope Benedict XVI as an incontinent man with a soiled soutane in allusion to a Vatican leaks scandal. Legal action by the Pope against personal insult had forced Titanic to cease the edition’s sale. As indicated by Beck, though, any criminalization of religious criticism in countries like Germany could serve as example and justification for precisely the criminalization of religious dissent in Muslim countries so feared by Schick and Zollitsch.