Protecting Religious Freedom and Holy Sites

A Declaration of the International Catholic - Jewish Liaison Committee

New York, May 4, 2001


Religious Freedom Under Attack

In recent years, inter-religious and anti-religious violence has been on the rise. In some places thousands of people have been killed and thousands more left homeless, even made refugees. Assassination of religious leaders and lay workers has become a frequent occurrence. Shrines, monuments and houses of worship have come under attack, been damaged or destroyed. The rights of many hundreds of thousands of believers have been violated. The offenders are occasionally individuals. More often they have been groups, whether mobs, terrorist organizations, or people with authority: police, military personnel or even governments.

We are troubled by assaults on religious freedom wherever they occur. We are all the more disturbed when members of our own religious communities have been the offenders. Assembled for this International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee meeting, we affirm once again before God and the world community our common commitment to the protection of religious freedom and to the security of holy places.

Respect for Holy Places

From the dawn of human consciousness, men and women have experienced the holy in locations that they have designated as sacred. Throughout recorded history, various groups have felt special attachment to places that they considered holy. The sacred texts of the great historical religions include accounts of specific places where individuals or groups experienced significant encounters with God.

Holy places set aside in memory of these encounters with the divine are a part of the character of every religious tradition. The faithful are drawn to them out of reverence for the great events or personalities they commemorate, and as loci for especially fervent prayer. Each of the great religious traditions of humanity has places that it holds to possess special sanctity. Holy places are as much a common feature of the religious traditions of humanity as are sacred time or prayer.

Paradoxically, one of the results of the identification of locations as sacred is that these places can become the focus for the tensions between the members of different religious communities. A place that is considered holy by one group can come to be claimed by adherents of another tradition. As a result, holy places can become the source of conflict as much as of spiritual expression.

Tragically, as religious communities fall into estrangement or antagonism, the holy places of each community often become the target of violence or vengeance instead of veneration and reverence. People act out their contempt and anger through various forms of violation: occupation, desecration, even destruction. So too, when holy sites are used for military purposes, their sacred character is defiled. One group can take physical possession of the holy place of another and eradicate traces of its earlier identity. Objects of veneration can be defaced. Holy places have been reduced to rubble.

As people of faith, we know how important our own holy places are in our religious and communal lives. Each of our communities of faith has also experienced the desecration of spaces sacred to us. We know the intense pain that arises from that experience. It is out of this history that we condemn all violence directed against holy places even by members of our own communities.

Protecting Religious Freedom

Freedom of religion and of conscience, including the rights of religious communities within society, derive from and are rooted in the liberty of persons before God. As Christians and Jews, we find the religious roots of such respect in the dignity of all persons created "in the and likeness of God" (Genesis 1:26). Religious freedom is realized through the exercise of specific rights. Among these are: freedom of worship, liberty in public manifestation of one's belief and the practice of one's religion, the freedom of religious communities to organize themselves and conduct their own affairs without interference, the right to show the implications one's beliefs for society, the right to hold meetings, and the right to establish educational, charitable, cultural and social organizations in keeping with the religious orientation of one's own religious tradition.

Protecting religious liberty requires the efforts of many parties. Looking at our own task, we must do more as religious leaders to teach our fellow believers respect for people who belong to other religious traditions. Religious leaders should also take initiatives to foster a climate of respect. They must be ready to speak out against violations of religious liberty committed against people of other religions.

We encourage religious bodies to institute regular programs of interreligious education, dialogue and exchange. When members of other faiths, particularly minority religions, come under attack, we urge people of good will to speak out in defense of the religious liberty and the human rights of the minority, to offer them support and to share with them public signs of solidarity. Religious leaders should never use their declarations for incitement or make shrines and houses of worship havens for hostile political action.

We ask all believers to work amicably across religious lines to resolve religious disputes and to follow the ways of peace together. Complaints about violations of religious liberty, freedom of conscience or the sanctity of holy places should be subject to careful examination and must never be an occasion for recrimination or defamation. Rather we must always strive to establish an atmosphere of openness and fairness in which disputes may be resolved.

Governments and political authorities bear special responsibility for protecting human religious rights. Those responsible for law, order and public security should feel themselves obligated to defend religious minorities and to use available legal remedies against those who commit crimes against religious liberty and the sanctity of holy places. Just as they are prohibited from engaging in anti-religious acts, governments must also be vigilant lest by inaction they effectively tolerate religious hatred or provide impunity for the perpetrators of anti-religious actions.

Armed forces ought to be vigilant in avoiding violent action against religious minorities and attacks against places of worship and holy sites. In the interest of securing religious liberty in times of conflict, armed personnel should be trained to respect the rights of religious minorities and holy sites and held accountable for their actions. When conflicts arise between legitimate defense needs and religious immunity, ways must be found to avoid, or at least minimize the infringement of religious rights.



We stand together as representatives of the Catholic and Jewish communities of faith in calling on men and women of all faiths to honor religious liberty and to treat the holy places of others with respect. We call on all people to reject attacks on religious liberty and violence against holy places as legitimate forms of political expression.

We look forward, prayerfully, to the time when all people shall enjoy the right to lead their religious lives unmolested and in peace. We long for the time when the holy places of all religious traditions will be secure and when all people treat one another's holy places with respect.

New York, New York May 4, 2001