Religious Liberty Under Attack: Germany, Egypt, Missouri

For American Catholics, the summer of 2012 was partially thematized by the midsummer "Fortnight for Freedom." The U.S. bishops' document, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," offered a list of besieged liberties currently "under attack, both at home and abroad." The document clearly emphasized two endangered species of liberty in the U.S.: the widely debated federal mandate that requires insurance plans to offer contraception coverage; and state immigration laws, such as Arizona's and Alabama's, that outlaw charity and pastoral care toward people without proper documentation. On the first, lots of Commonweal coverage here. On the second, as of yesterday, federal judge Susan Bolton, though upholding the "show your papers" part of the laws, seems to have struck a victory for religious liberty in striking down the part of these laws which makes "harboring" or "transporting" undocumented immigrants illegal. The bishops of many border towns can breathe a bit easier today, in the hopes that they do not need to choose between caring for their flocks or following the law.The thematized summer brought into focus some other tragedies of religious liberty under attack. The shooting at the Sikh temple was obviously the horrific example of an attack on religion, but other events may have slipped under the radar.[caption id="attachment_20597" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Charlotte Knobloch / Foto: Steffi Loos"]Charlotte Knobloch / Foto: Steffi Loos[/caption]For example, consider the example of Jews in Germany. After a court ruling that banned circumcision in Germany in June, and then a public beating of a rabbi and subsequent solidarity march ("yarmulke flash mob"), the liberty of Jews in Germany is seriously threatened. In response to the summer's events, Jewish leader Charlotte Knobloch wrote an incisive editorial in yesterday's Suddeutsche Zeitung: "Wollt ihr uns Juden noch?" In an English summary in Der Spiegel, her sentiment is translated thus:

For six decades I have had to justify myself because I stayed in Germany -- as a remnant of a destroyed world, as a sheep among wolves. ... I always readily carried this burden because I was firmly convinced that this country and these people deserved it. For the first time my basic convictions are starting to shake. For the first time I feel resignation. I seriously ask if this country still wants us.

Meanwhile in Egypt, the perilous position of Coptic Christians showed little signs of improvement over the summer. To wit, David Pinault at America notes that support for and anticipation of martyrdom has returned to consciousness in Egypt. A newspaper in Old Cairo recently featured the following headline:

The blood of the martyrs cries out from the darkness, and the tears of the Copts will not dry. But our Lord is present. A photo-montage accompanied the texta crowd of wailing women at Maspero, horror and shock in their eyes; and the face of Jesus, his head bowed beneath a crown of thorns. Suddenly the distant days of Saints Catherine and Barbara felt very close at hand.

Finally, back in the heartland of the United States, I was stunned to find out that the proposed mosque in Joplin, Missouri, which had been subject to arson earlier in the summer, was burned again last month. One of the local leaders stood firm for American principles, despite having been subject to such hatred:

"This is what we stand for," said Dr. Ahmed Asadullah, a member of the Islamic Society of Joplin. "Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech."

Amid all the metaphorical attacks on religious liberty in the United States, I don't want to forget the real ones: banning the sign of the covenant for Jewish men in Germany; violence and murder of Coptic Christians in Egypt; a repeated arson of a mosque under construction in Missouri.

Unless religious liberty means liberty for others, it means nothing. That's the American vision, and since Vatican II, it's the Catholic vision too. That's why Mike Bloomberg's 2010 speech (transcript) on Governors Island was so meaningful to me, as an American. An Irish-Catholic speechwriter penned an eloquent oration so that a Jewish mayor could defend the rights of Muslims to follow the First Amendment. It is that sweet land of liberty of which I, for one, sing.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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