Freedom of faith and conscience is part of our system of values – so Germany should also stand up for Christians
Published on 12 January 2011
When the debate on freedom of faith and religion in the German Bundestag in late December turned to the rights of oppressed Christians, the government coalition had to fend off fierce attacks by the opposition. One of their criticisms was that the discussion on the plight of Christians relativized the suffering of other religious groups and had thus been given too much prominence. The recent attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt proved this viewpoint to be very much mistaken. It reminded us that the more than 100 million persecuted Christians not only represent the largest group of people discriminated against on religious grounds but also that violence against Christians has increased during the last few years.
Article 1 of the Basic Law – the inviolability of human dignity – lies at the very heart of our constitutional order. Based on its universal validity, we have derived a host of fundamental rights, not least freedom of religion. Freedom of faith and of conscience, as well as freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, are a fundamental achievement of our civilization and have long since been part of our system of values. In the past, this freedom had to be fought for in the face of bitter opposition.
This opposition also came from Christian churches which felt their privileges and their claim to universal validity were in jeopardy. Nevertheless, they gradually came to understand that in its universality this principle not only protects their own followers where they are at risk but is also part of a rounded Christian view of the individual. This may seem more paradoxical at first than it really is, for alongside the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the Christian faith had a greater influence than almost any other force on the intellectual development of the European concept of human dignity.
In awareness of this historical legacy, we in Germany have opted for a philosophy which is not based on a particular religion but, rather, on the idea of tolerance and of equality among the different religious creeds.
Nonetheless, in contrast to other interpretations which, at times, can be anti-religious in tone, our model of the republican state based on the rule of law has a positive approach to religion. We want religious communities to make active contributions towards social cohesion in our country, irrespective of whether they are Muslim, Christian or followers of another religion. The state can best guarantee this by limiting itself to protecting freedom of religion while exercising the greatest possible restraint when it comes to the religious or philosophical beliefs of its citizens.
These principles governing the state’s actions at home also apply to our foreign policy. It therefore goes without saying that we champion the protection of oppressed religious minorities throughout the world. This is what we are doing, for instance, when we speak out against the persecution of Bahai in Iran or the oppression of Buddhist monks in Tibet. Naturally, however, we also have to take action when Christians are persecuted and discriminated against. That is not only because Christianity forms the largest religious community in the world or because Christian minorities, for example in Lebanon or in Egypt, have contributed not only to diversity but also in no small measure to the prosperity of their home countries. Rather our common roots mean that beyond all the above we have a special responsibility for Christians throughout the world.
Who, we may ask ourselves, should stand up for the rights of Christians if we do not do it ourselves? Whether as Christians or as citizens of a society which has been profoundly influenced by Christianity. As so often in international issues, we have to tread a fine line between energetically demanding what we think is right and appearing to be paternalistic, which can only be counterproductive. Maintaining this balance between protecting the inalienable rights of individuals, the self-determination of sovereign states and our justified interest in supporting the like-minded is one of the greatest challenges facing foreign policy in an enlightened democracy based on the rule of law.