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New Challenges to Religious Freedom

Keywords: Dignitatis Humanae, religious freedom, globalization, religious diasporas, soft power, international relations, principle of non-intervention.

The question of religious freedom has gone beyond the boundaries of nations and states, the framework within which Dignitatis Humanae (DH) declared the right to religious freedom. We need to develop the doctrine of DH taking into account the new situations of religious freedom, as an issue of international relations, and not just as an intra-state question.

DH was one of the most discussed documents of Vatican II, because it reformulated Church doctrine on the issues of Church-State relations, freedom of worship and religious tolerance. It did so by declaring “that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power” (DH, 2).

Since Leo XIII, the questions referring to religious freedom had been framed through the polarity of Church-State relations, which begged, at least, two further questions, regarding freedom of worship and religious tolerance. In this way the question entered the Council, as Chapter 9 of the earlier draft version of the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church. One of the remarkable features of the declaration is the fact that it never uses the word state. The question of religious freedom was not framed using the polarity Church-State, but in terms of the polarity Church-Society, a polarity that can also be observed in Gaudium et Spes. The term society is used 23 times in the declaration. In one case the term refers to the family “a society in its own original right” (DH. 5). In two cases, it refers to the Church, as a society of men. In three cases, it is used as human society, leaving a certain ambiguity, but in most of the other cases, it is used in the sense of the state, or society as a political body. The term is used as “civil society”, the “constitutional order of society”, “the constitutional law whereby society is governed”, “the organization of society”, “the common welfare of society”, “the usages of society.” It also appears close to expressions like public order or the right of society to defend itself. Although the bipolarity has changed from Church-State to Church-Society, the question of religious freedom is still framed within the context of a single society, or a state. It could not be otherwise, for this was the problem that laid before the Council Fathers.

Some of the questions about religious freedom have not particularly changed. Many men and women see their religious freedom denied by the state in which they live. Sometimes the state forbids or tightly controls any religious expression. In other cases, an official or dominant religion restrains freedom of worship or other religious expressions.

Yet, there is a new problem originated by globalization, growing religious diasporas and the emergence of religion as a force of international relations. Until recently, international law provided a certain religious tolerance for small religious diasporas. These diasporas were, usually, so small that they were insignificant, and were not perceived as a problem in the receiving societies. These small groups could always gather in embassies and other diplomatic representations, or worship in private houses. However, globalization has changed and enriched the casuistry. Religious diasporas have grown. In some countries they represent significant groups, and in some others, quite big ones. This fact couples with the emergence of religion as a factor of international relations. This has become particularly problematic with the “discovery” that religion as soft power can be used in international relations.

The concept of “soft power” was introduced by Joseph Nye in the field of international relations in 1990 in an article in Foreign Policy. If power is the capacity to affect other people’s behavior, Nye contended that beyond stick and carrot, threat or payment, which he conceptualized as hard power, there was a case to talk about soft power, the power of attraction. In his article he particularly developed the concept of soft power applied to the USA. The idea that religion can act as soft power in international relations came later. There are different examples of how it can work. Russia or Turkey are good examples of the use of religion as soft power.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin, has resorted to religion as a source of soft power. Putin, a former KGB agent, has presented himself in public as a devout Orthodox Christian, and has supported the Russian Orthodox Church in the country. The Russian government has also explored the ways of religion as soft power beyond its frontiers. The opening of a new Orthodox Cathedral in Paris in 2016 was seen as more than just a religious act. The Cathedral, completely funded by the Kremlin, was for many the expression of a spiritually strong and resurgent Russia.

Turkey, as well, has explored these avenues. A recent official visit of President Erdogan to Germany ended with the inauguration of a new central mosque in Cologne built by DITIB (the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, a large umbrella organization that manages 900 mosques in Germany). DITIB is linked to Diyanet, a state agency established in 1924 regarding Islamic faith and practices.

The two cases show the ambivalent use of religion. In France and Germany some have raised their voices against what they see as a breach of the principle of non-intervention. In exercising religious freedom in the new international scenarios, DH’s doctrine needs to develop, and the document itself contains elements for this development. DH argues for religious freedom to proceed along two tracks, one grounded in Revelation, and one grounded in reason. The declaration affirms that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” This double track can allow us to develop some of the arguments of reason in favor of religious freedom, to assure this right in the new international scenario.

The council opted to define religious freedom as a freedom from coercion: “in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (DH, 2). In these new international scenarios, a balance has to be found between a freedom from coercion of the hosting country –that should assure freedom in matters religious for the new diasporas— while also assuring the freedom from coercion that could come from the country of origin of the diasporas, that under the disguise of support of the religious freedom of its citizens and their descendants, might in fact coerce in matters religious.

In this sense the “just demands of public order” of which the declaration talks, have to be understood, not just as the public order of a particular country, which has the right to request contextually specific ways of exercising religious freedom, but also as respect for the just demands of the international public order, of which the principle of non-intervention is a fundamental principle.

In that sense re-reading DH we can propose a certain development in the context of a globalized world and the rise of religion in international relations.