An official website of the United States government

Panelist Remarks at Embassy Symposium “Stand Together to Defend Religious Freedom”
April 3, 2019

Four men are seated at a table. Their name tags are in front of them. The banner in front of the table reads "Stand Together to Defend International Religious Freedom"
The panel on “Media Strategies to Highlight Religious Persecution” at the Embassy’s April 3rd “Stand Together to Defend International Religious Freedom” symposium was moderated by Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities U.S. Department of State and included the participation of Paolo R



At the Embassy’s April 3 symposium “Stand Together to Defend Religious Freedom” there were two panel discussions on “Media Strategies to Highlight Religious Persecution” and “Collaborative Approaches to Defending Religious Freedom.”

The panel on “Media Strategies to Highlight Religious Persecution” at the Embassy’s April 3rd “Stand Together to Defend International Religious Freedom” symposium was moderated by Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities U.S. Department of State and included the participation of Paolo Ruffini, Prefect, Dicastery for Communications, Holy See; Alessandro Monteduro, Director, Aid to the Church in Need (Italy) and Roberto Fontolan, Chairman, #StandTogether Project.

(prepared remarks below)

Paolo Ruffini
Prefect, Dicastery for Communications, Holy See

One cannot fail to be concerned about the drastic increase in violations of religious freedom in the world and the persecution of believers and non-believers

We thought that history was marching towards the good.

We fear instead a return of evil.

And evil is hatred, violence, persecution, fanaticism, terrorism.

It is the attitude of rejection by many states of religious freedom.

It is the attacks, in the churches, as well as those in the synagogues, and in the mosques. Everywhere.

Evil is the death of the innocent.

The evil is the construction – through errant communication – of tribes rather than communities. Tribes based on the exclusion of the other. On the hatred of the other. Often claiming to enlist God on their side.

Persecution – Pope Francis said – is, in a way, the air by which the Christian lives even today. In many countries. There are people in jail; there are people condemned to die because they are Christian, and killed. And the number is higher than the martyrs of the early times. But this does not make the news.

The crimes committed against religious minorities call for a serious and specific assumption of responsibility by the media.

One cannot fight evil with another evil.

We cannot serve the truth with disinformation. Which is made up of silences and half-truths, or exploitation of the truth.

If it is true, that it is also up to the media to reconstruct the unity of the human family, it is necessary to speak about evil, but also to try to give space to the good.

It is necessary, as Italo Calvino would say, to seek in the hell of our time all that hell is not.

Great caution is needed in the face of the risk of canceling, of getting rid of all forms of dialogue, of every minimum common denominator.

Several times Pope Francis recalled the advice given by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Have perseverance”.

Perseverance in telling the truth.

Perseverance in building, even through the media, conditions so that no one will be persecuted or experience constraints and violence because of his religion.

Perseverance in dialogue, to build a more just society.

Perseverance in believing that this cannot happen through violence and weapons.

Perseverance in safeguarding religious minorities in situations of war and conflict.

Perseverance in not lumping everyone together.

Perseverance in avoiding ideological and political exploitation.

Perseverance in remembering – as John Paul II said – that the State cannot claim competence, direct or indirect, over people’s religious convictions.

Perseverance – as it is written in the conciliar declaration Dignitatis Humanae, signed by Paul VI in 1965 – “in repeating that it belongs to the dignity of the person to be able to correspond to the moral imperative of one’s conscience in the search for truth. …”.

Perseverance – as written in the Abu Dhabi declaration signed by Francis this year – in defending and spreading the culture of tolerance, coexistence and peace; in combating any deviation, any abuse of religious sentiment aimed at doing what has nothing to do with the truth of religion, nor ceasing to exploit religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism ; in never using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.

Perseverance in recovering the concept of full citizenship and in renouncing the discriminatory use of the term minorities, which prepares the ground for hostilities and discord and subtracts the conquests and the religious and civil rights of some citizens by discriminating against them.

To build, even through the media, a freer world, without persecution, it is necessary to start with the first brick, with the first rule that we all have in common or that we should have in common. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you. Do unto others was you would have done to you.

Even in the darkest moments we must believe what Paul VI said about peace: some think it is a dream, a myth, a utopia. Instead we say that peace is a difficult thing, very difficult indeed; but it is a possible thing, a necessary thing.

(working translation from the original Italian)

Roberto Fontolan
Chairman, #StandTogether Project

I would like to begin by thanking Ambassador Gingrich and her collaborators for this great opportunity. Coming to our theme, I certainly must say that “raising public awareness” is exactly the goal of Stand Together initiative. We have been working on it since November 2016. And after completing the project we went online at the beginning of 2017.

Just to say something about our initiative, we are a group of people working in different fields: I am a journalist director of International Center of CL in Rome, Manuel is the director of Opus Dei Communications Office, Antonio runs Rome Reports News Agency, Rossella represents Fondazione Promocion Social de la Cultura and Iscom NGO; with us there are also some collaborators.

Together we have been sharing the emotions and feelings Pope Francis made us aware of when he spoke about the discrimination and persecution of Christian minorities in various regions in the world. He has often referred to them as “the new martyrs”, adding that they are surrounded by silence and indifference.

We didn’t want and we don’t want to be accomplices of such an inhuman fate.

Since then we have been devoting some hours of our time to the initiative on a voluntary basis.

Stand Together is a digital platform which collects experiences and stories that shed light on the condition discriminated religious groups, particularly Christian, live in. The contents are spread, on a daily basis, across the social media (Facebook, Twitter and Youtube) and international tv channels in English, Italian, Spanish and Russian.

There are two main content sources: news agencies, such as Asianews or Fides, advocacy groups, Churches and others: we want to promote their jobs, quoting them and redirecting people to their websites or social media. We don’t want in any way to substitute them in their work or create a new organization. The second source is Rome Reports with its original video stories distributed worldwide through a network of more than twenty tv channels. It’s almost impossible to establish the exact number of TV viewers, but we can say that the videos posted on YouTube have reached the number of about 1.400.000 views.

Just a few words about our approach: the stories we choose are inspired by hope, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, mutual help, understanding and sincere dialogue. The main issue is always highlighting the value of the Christian presence in those regions, and the efforts to foster religious freedom for everyone.

Alessandro Monteduro
Director, Aid to the Church in Need (Italy)

I would first of all like to welcome this audience, the Authorities and in particular the Ambassador, Mrs Gingrich, and His Eminence Cardinal Parolin.

I am grateful for this invitation and wish to express my gratitude to the Organizers, the StandTogether Project and the Embassy of the United States of America to the Holy See for organizing this Symposium and obviously for opening to the presence of “Aid to the Church in Need”.

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is a papal foundation present in twenty-three countries. Thanks to about 110 million euros given by private donors, 5.009 projects were supported last year in 139 countries.

However, ACN not only is an organization devoted to material assistance, it also acts as an important news agency. As many among you may already know, ACN has been issuing every two years since 1999 the Report on religious freedom in the world, which describes the degree of freedom of faith that any religious confession in every nation worldwide actually enjoys. It therefore brings to light the discrimination and persecutions suffered by many communities, not just the Christian ones.

ACN is also an organization devoted to publicly denounce the tragedy of persecution for the hatred of faith. The lighting of churches and symbolic monuments in red to draw national and international attention of the martyrdom of Christians has become viral worldwide.

I would like to start from a day, May 26th 2017, from a town in Egypt, Minya, and from a horrible slaughter, the massacre of a number of Orthodox Coptic Christians. As you will certainly remember, a group of terrorists linked to Daesh killed almost all the pilgrim passengers of a bus that was heading to the Monastery of Samuel the Confessor.

It was not the first terrorist attack in Egypt, as you may know. In addition, the attacks that have been carried out in these last years in that Country as well as in the whole Middle East area, targeted not only Christians but people belonging to communities of different faiths as well.

The following day, March 27, the most important Italian newspaper at the time, had not published even the slightest reference in its front page, notwithstanding the fact that the previous day they had duly and meritoriously headlined the umpteenth drowning of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea “Slaughter of the Innocents”. I am telling this story because if an attack is carried out in Stockholm – a bare three-hour flight from Rome – it duly takes the front pages and is being followed for days on end. If a terrorist attack of the same type takes place in Cairo – a bare three-hour flight from Rome – the tale of woe cannot meet the front pages and ends up that very same day confined in the Foreign Affairs section.

Some media workers maintain – in order to justify their limited interest – that the diminished coverage by the Western press for slaughters carried out in the name of the same aberrational political and religious reasons should be related to the fact that there seems to be less audience interested in this. Even when leader platforms push this kind of content on their home pages and on their social channels, thus doing what is indisputably correct to do, involvement hardly seems to take off. Or, at least, the tragic news of the slaughters in Pakistan, Iraq or Egypt would not rise in the ranks of the most read ones.

Given that I – and not only I – question this justifying interpretation, and given that I reckon that the reasons for this silence are quite different, the challenge for us seems to be that of explaining that there are not A-team and B-team martyred and long-suffering communities. We all must contribute to this.

That is the reason why ACN foundation is investing a part of its resources in this direction, in the media strategies. Those we have adopted so far, in addition to those we could define as “traditional” ones, are: the already mentioned red lighting of monuments and religious buildings in order to attract public attention on so much innocent blood; involving the victims and witnesses of persecution to every public event; using the social platforms so that the tragedy of violated religious freedom can be “within smartphone range”.


The panel on “Collaborative Approaches to Advance Religious Freedom” at the Embassy’s April 3rd “Stand Together to Defend International Religious Freedom” symposium was moderated by Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities U.S. Department of State and included the participation of Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, Secretary, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Dr. Silvio Ferrari, Professor of Law & Religion, University of Milan and Sister Clare Jardine, General Councilor, Congregation of Our Lady of Sion.

(prepared remarks below)

Monsignor Khaled Akasheh
Secretary, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue

The following remarks take into consideration the issue under discussion, mainly in relation to Muslims, this being the field of my work.

To advance a cause, it is necessary that people become aware and convinced of the good that it generates. This principle becomes all the more important and necessary when the cause needs to be defended and promoted and made sure that the cause is above any kind of suspicion. This principle clearly applies to the case of religious freedom from the viewpoint of our Muslim brothers and sisters.

We know that the attachment of certain religious communities to their religion is visceral. Such a visceral relation might be at the expense of rationality and of a wise approach to religion. This can lead to fanaticism and to other related “religious pathologies”, a concept we owe to Pope Benedict XVI. Most of the Muslims have a visceral relation to their religion, leading to specific attitudes, in particular, fear and being defensive.

Among the fears is the disaggregation of the community – the ummah. Such a fear is nurtured by the feeling that Islam is under attack, especially by the West. According to those who hold this theory, when the ‘enemies of Islam’ cannot attack it frontally, they would make recourse to indirect means such as raising of human rights issues, NGOs and even interreligious dialogue.

The fears of a person or of a group – whether motivated or not – should be addressed in order to create mutual trust, necessary not only as a departure point, but also as a goal to achieve.

Our Muslim brothers and sisters need to be assured that the issue of religious freedom is not directed against them or against their religion. They should also be aware that respecting religious freedom would be an antidote to Islamophobia and therefore would contribute to the improvement of the image of Islam, which has suffered much because of some of its deviated adherents.

Obviously, pressures of all kinds and lack of liberty give rise to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy – in Arabic nifaaq – is among the major sins in Islam, and a hypocrite – munafiq – is not only a big sinner, but also one who is looked down by others. The growth of religious freedom will mean the reduction of hypocrisy and the increase in the number of believers who are coherent and therefore credible.

Another factor that can be invoked in favour of religious freedom is the peace, harmony and prosperity of societies and nations which enjoy religious freedom.

The respect for religious freedom, for other freedoms and fundamental rights is the measure of democracy in a society or a county. The relation between human rights and democracy can be one of either vicious circle or virtuous circle. That is why it is necessary to foster democracy to advance the cause of religious freedom. On the other hand, when there is a deficit of democracy, religious sentiments can be easily instrumentalized for political ends.

Where societies are democratic, civil society flourishes and contributes in its turn to the advancement of religious freedom, fundamental freedoms and other rights.

The same can be said about NGOs, on condition that they remain faithful to human values and solidarity, keeping themselves far from politics and ideology; otherwise they would lose credibility.

I would like to end with these thoughts:

-Recognition of religious freedom in civil laws;

-Promotion of a culture respectful of and favourable to religious freedom;

-Media as an ally in the noble cause of promoting religious freedom;

-Fostering of reciprocity as an expression of mutual respect and justice.

Dr. Silvio Ferrari
Professor of Law & Religion, University of Milan

If someone asked me what is the most effective strategy for promoting religious freedom, I would answer that we must look at the problem from the point of view of religious minorities. Why religious minorities? For two reasons. First, they are the ones who most need religious freedom. Second, all religions are a minority in some part of the world and this provides a shared starting point. to identify some minimum standards that must be respected by everyone everywhere

As a legal expert, I shall highlight two of these legal standards, even though I am well aware that the issue of religious freedom needs to be addressed in a much more comprehensive way..

From the point of view of religious minorities, the first minimum standard consists of freedom from all types of constraint in matter of religion. Nobody anywhere in the world should be compelled to face the alternative “either you profess my religion or you must leave this country” or “either you raise your children in my religion or you will not see them any more”. On this minimum standard we can then build a much more fulfilling notion and practice of freedom of religion but this is the starting point.

The second standard is freedom from discrimination on the ground of religion. It means enjoying civil and political rights on equal footing, irrespective of the religion that is professed, avoiding the humiliation of being treated as second class citizens because of the religion that is professed and receiving a fair share of respect, recognition and consideration. These are the necessary conditions to give minorities the opportunity to contribute to the common good in their own way.

If we were able to identify and guarantee some basic rights for religious minorities, we would take a fundamental step t advance religious freedom for all.

How can we achieve this goal? The first step is filling a knowledge gap. In the field of minority studies, religious minorities are the most neglected. We need tools that help to map religious minority rights, measure their respect and raise awareness of the importance of their implementation. We have atlases of linguistic and ethnic minorities: it would helpful to build an online atlas of religious minority rights that  identifies the degree of protection (or un-protection) religious minorities enjoy in each country and in each areas of social life (schools, the workplace and so on). The second step is developing educational instruments where the available data and information are arranged in user-friendly tool-kits that can be used by people working in specific settings to foster equal treatment and non-discrimination of religious minorities: not only students but also teachers, journalists, politicians could make good use of such tool. Finally, we need to strengthen the cultural and political consensus at global level about the link between protection of religious minority rights and promotion of freedom of religion for all. With the help of some international organizations, religious communities have taken some steps in this direction (I am thinking for example of the Beirut declaration and its 18 commitments). States should not fall behind with this mission.

Sister Clare Jardine
General Councilor, Congregation of Our Lady of Sion

My focus will be on how education and coalition building can address the rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe and North America which denies or undermines the religious freedom of the Jewish community with the myriad of ways one can identify as Jewish.

Certain organizations are already pro-active in these areas.  For example, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which promotes Holocaust awareness-raising activities in the UK, holds that without a basic understanding of this appalling human history we are in danger of failing to learn where a lack of respect for difference and hostility to others can ultimately lead.    A recent survey carried out by the London based Jewish Chronicle showed that fewer than half British adults understand what the word anti-Semitism means with under 40’s less likely to understand the word than older people. Education will help to ensure that young people and future generations understand anti-Semitism and know about the Holocaust (Shoah).  Through their education programmes the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe teaches critical thinking and respect for others.

Surveys show that In most countries in the European Union anti-Semitism is felt by Jews to be increasing. Attacks can take the form of killings, stabbings, personal and on-line abuse and anti-Jewish symbols daubed on buildings and in cemeteries.  Anti-Semitism is often driven by an anti-Israel motivation.   In some countries there is a fear of wearing kippot (skull caps) in the street and of displaying mezzuzot (cases containing scriptural verses) on their doorposts.  Because of fear and being unable to be openly Jewish, many Jews and have either already emigrated to Israel or are planning to do so.   The situation is urgent. Education about Jews and Judaism, meeting Jewish people through school partnering and exchanges can lead to a greater appreciation of Jewish people and change attitudes.

Coalition building is a very powerful and effective way of addressing problems in communities.  It means that individual organizations amplify their voices by working together.  For example,  groups of young people, teachers and leaders across faith groups, come together in innovative ways.  Groups can be brought together through various media, e.g. drama, art, creative writing, conversations, visits to sites of Jewish heritage.  Such experiences and encounters challenge patterns of thinking, can create new pathways in the mind, touch the hearts of participants in ways which more traditional teaching methods cannot.  Friendships are forged and often sustained; old stereotypes are challenged and hopefully dropped.  Instead of being demonized, the “other” is met and accepted.