The Common Good

Vatican Walks a Fine Line on Trying to Combat Blasphemy

RNS photo by Jimmy Harris via Flickr
View down Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy. RNS photo by Jimmy Harris via Flickr

Just one week after Pope Benedict XVI ended his successful visit to Lebanon, the country's most senior Catholic leader called for a United Nations resolution “that will ban denigrating religions.”

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the country's only Catholic cabinet member, Minister of Harmony Paul Bhatti, this week told an interfaith gathering in Lahore that he will press U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to pass a UN resolution that condemns "defamation and contempt against religions." Bhatti said "we must not allow anyone to break our harmony" between Christians and Muslims.

Both moves are understandable in light of increasingly popular efforts in predominantly Muslim countries to outlaw blasphemy or defaming religion. But they could prove problematic for the Vatican as it fights to protect the rights of Christian minorities around the world.

The debate suggests a widening gap between the Vatican's official position, which opposes such measures, and the day-to-day reality of Catholic leaders on the ground, who often feel compelled to support Muslim efforts to protect religious tenets and religious figures from defamation.

The issue gained new urgency after an American-produced film, "The Innocence of Muslims," sparked anti-Western riots across the Muslim world, reigniting a global debate on curbing free speech in the name of protecting religions against defamation and insult.

Speaking at a summit of Christian and Muslims leaders on Sept. 24, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai of Lebanon said the film is “offensive not only to Muslims and the prophet, but also to Christians and all other religions,” and that simply condemning the film was not enough.

Rai and Lebanon's Muslims leaders announced the creation of a committee of international law experts tasked with drafting a text that will “protect monotheistic religions from insults and slander, with these offenses facing legal prosecution.”

Since 1999, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — an umbrella group of 57 Arab and Muslim nations — has promoted a non-binding U.N. resolution against “defamation of religion," although support for the measure has steadily eroded in recent years.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25, President Obama made it clear that the U.S. Constitution could never sanction anti-blasphemy laws, and challenged  Muslims who are offended by insults to Muhammad to take a broader view.

"The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam," he said. "But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied."

The Vatican, too, has generally opposed efforts to introduce international legislation against defamation of religion, though for different reasons.

Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, the Vatican's permanent observer to the U.N., Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, warned that “introducing a vague concept of 'defamation'” was not an effective way of “combating offensive attitudes towards religion,” and might actually lead to “further oppression of religious minorities.”

In Pakistan, Bhatti's brother, Shahbaz, was gunned down last year while serving as minister for minority religious affairs. He had publicly opposed the country's anti-blasphemy law, and the country's Catholic bishops say the law's ambiguous wording leaves room for abuse.

But in recent years, especially after controversy erupted over the so-called Muhammad cartoons in Europe in 2005, the Vatican has also shown a clear concern for Muslim sensibilities toward the slandering of religious values and symbols.

A joint declaration of a Catholic-Muslim dialogue at the Vatican in 2008 stated that the “founding figures” and the “sacred” symbols of religions “should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.”

Another joint statement by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Cairo's respected Al-Azhar University was even clearer: it called on the media “in all countries to be vigilant that freedom of expression not be taken as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred.”

In both documents, however, the emphasis was on self restraint, with no mention of legislative enforcement.

But after the recent events in the Middle East, the Rev. Bryan Lobo, director of the Theology of Religions department at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, is convinced that “Christian leaders like Patriarch Bechara Rai and others cannot but support the Muslim world in its appeal to restrict such activities of religious defamation.”

"Hatred for another religion which leads to the defamation of that religion's texts, figures or values," the Jesuit scholar said, is “totally contrary to the command of Jesus to 'love your neighbor as yourself.'”

In recent years, the Vatican has gone to court to fight images that it considered “offensive” toward Pope Benedict XVI, such as an ad-campaign that portrayed the pontiff kissing a Muslim leader or, more recently, when a German satirical magazine published a photo-shopped image of the pope's vestments stained with urine.

The Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Catholic scholar writing for AsiaNews from Lebanon, said that “beyond the exaggerations,” Muslim anger “points the finger at something real: under the guise of freedom, in the West we tend to ridicule religion.”

"Unfortunately," he added, "the Christians of the West are submissive and unresisting in the face of insults to Christianity.”

Alessandro Speciale writes for Religion News Service. Via RNS.

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