Rights = peace

  • May 23, 2013

It is difficult to envision peace coming soon to war-torn Syria. Lasting peace, the type that brings security and respect for human dignity, is unlikely without religious freedom, and there is no apparent will among Syria’s warring factions to embrace this inalienable human right.

Instead, the situation continues to worsen. Two months ago, the United Nations said the crisis was spiralling towards full-scale disaster. At the time, one million people had become war refugees. Just 10 weeks later, the refugee total has skyrocketed to 1.5 million and will top three million by December unless the killing that has taken 70,000 lives is ended.

There is a wide consensus that peace must start by removing President Bashar al-Assad and inserting a coalition government to begin a long process of national rehabilitation. In supporting this scenario, the United Nations has condemned Assad for turning heavy weapons on his own people. Allegations that he also has used chemical weapons are unproven but, if true, will compel the West to forcibly intervene. While flooding Syria with more weapons may topple Assad, sending more guns into the volatile region is hardly a long-term recipe for harmony.

Simply replacing Assad will not bring peace. Syria’s Christians and other religious minorities rightly fear the next regime will, at best, pay lip service to human rights and religious freedom. Fixing Syria is not just about toppling a dictator. It’s about cultivating a peaceful, democratic, pluralistic society founded on acceptance and respect for all citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.

In 2012, Pope Benedict published a blueprint for such a peace. His apostolic exhortation on the Middle East said peace must begin with a dialogue to establish the inalienable right of all citizens to live and worship freely while also fostering a will to build a society that affirms and defends that right. This “culture of peace” must be founded on the right of religious freedom, “since only the free practice of faith can inspire the regions diverse peoples to unite around basic human values.”

“Religious freedom is the pinnacle of all other freedoms,” Benedict said. “It is a sacred and inalienable right. It must be possible to profess and freely manifest one’s religion and its symbols without endangering one’s life and personal freedom. Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person. It safeguards moral freedom and fosters mutual respect.”

Religious freedom is more profound than religious tolerance. Assad was tolerant of worship by religious minorities. But religious freedom goes beyond tolerance. It accepts the right to publicly profess faith in everyday life.

Israel is the only Middle East nation that has taken that important step. Syria is unlikely to know genuine and lasting peace until it does likewise.

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