Inter-faith relations emerged as a topic during a meeting of representatives of various religions at Washington's John Paul II Cultural Center, but also during the Pope's visit to a synagogue in Manhattan and during a prayer function with Protestant leaders in a New York church. Benedict XVI chose the Hall of the General Assembly of the United Nations to talk about human rights and how the international community can protect them.
Wherever he talked about the "hottest" topics in today's global discussions, the Pope urged religious and political leaders to avoid the easy way out that does not take into account the wholeness of the human person, of his heart and desire for truth. At the United Nations he said that the state existed for the people, not the people for the state, insisting that the same thing applies to international organisations, laws and conventions. In his address to his fellow religious leaders he said that they too should not limit themselves to a generic kind of peace, but should instead strive to "discuss our differences with calmness and clarity." And for Benedict XVI the key to dialogue is "listening to the truth" so that "this way," he said in the meeting at the John Paul II Center, "our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but [will] go on to probe their ultimate foundation. We have no reason to fear, for the truth unveils for us the essential relationship between the world and God."
Ultimately dialogue aims at "a clear exposition of our respective religious tenets" without fears or compromises because what unites is greater than what divides, which is our shared desire to place man before the mystery of existence and the questions the latter raises.
Several times the Pope talked to his American hosts about his constant concern for the protection of religious freedomstarting with US President George W. Bush with whom he sees eye to eye on this matterbut also with the representatives of UN member states as well as the religious leaders he met in Washington and New York.
"The task of upholding religious freedom is never completed. New situations and challenges invite citizens and leaders to reflect on how their decisions respect this basic human right. Protecting religious freedom within the rule of law does not guarantee that peoplesparticularly minoritieswill be spared from unjust forms of discrimination and prejudice. This requires constant effort on the part of all members of society to ensure that citizens are afforded the opportunity to worship peaceably and to pass on their religious heritage to their children."
The United States offered the Pope an opportunity to make this point. On several occasions Benedict XVI praised the ideals on which American democracy is based, but he also warned against the risks represented by individualism or a materialism steamrolling over the weak. America, he said, "has a long history of cooperation between different religions in many spheres of public life" and "Americans have always valued the ability to worship freely and in accordance with their conscience."
As he has done before in his writings when he was still Card Joseph Ratzinger, the Holy Father cited Alexis de Tocqueville again in order to analyse the American experiment, saying how the French historian was fascinated by the fact that America was a country "in which religion and freedom are 'intimately linked' in contributing to a stable democracy that fosters social virtues and participation in the communal life of all its citizens."
Religious freedom was a particularly significant and touchy issue the Pope touched upon in his address to the United Nations. Many observers and analysts were ready to give his remarks a political spin, one way or the other. In effect some read into them references to China, Russia or Islamic countries.
"Human rights,' he said, "must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitariana vision that brings out the unity of the person while clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer." For the Pontiff it is inconceivable that "believers should have to suppress a part of themselvestheir faithin order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one's rights."
Benedict XIV did not go to the United Nations with a report card with passing or failing marks. All he did was to remind the world, taking inspiration from the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of the need to "place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science." If we forget that the human person is the "high-point of God's creative design for the world and for history," then a generic notion of legality is likely to prevail, vesting in the state or international organisations the power to determine what is good for people on whose behalf they are supposed to act.
No doubt the greatest "provocation" Benedict XVI's left UN diplomats, who listened to him with great interest in the Hall of the General Assembly, was the recognition that the human rights that ink pages of resolutions and fill hours of debates in the UN building are "based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations." Governments and diplomatic chanceries around the world should keep this in mind and earnestly pursue it because taking rights out of their context, as often happens at the level of states and international organisations, "would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks."