Bernardo M. Villegas
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Religious Freedom

            I wrote about "Remarkable Indonesia" a few weeks ago on the basis of the strong growth of the Indonesian economy.  Another reason why we can refer to "remarkable Indonesia" is the exemplary manner with which its State respects religious freedom.  Except for some extremist minorities in Aceh and other remote islands, Indonesian society is tolerant of religious pluralism even if 98 percent of its population is Muslim.  I have Indonesian friends who converted from Islam to Christianity.  They are not only fully integrated into Indonesian society.  They occupy important positions in both the public and private sectors.  As another salient sign of respect for religious freedom, the current Indonesian Ambassador to the Philippines, His Excellency Kristiarto Legowo, is a Roman Catholic.  One of the most trusted members of the cabinet of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) is a Christian, Mari Pangestu, who in the last Cabinet revamp was just given the important portfolio of Minister of Tourism and Creative Industries, after having occupied for six years the equally prestigious post of Minister of Trade and Industry.

          It is my fervent prayer that the Muslim countries emerging as democratic societies in the aftermath of the "Arab spring" will emulate the example of Indonesia.  Here let me quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church about the right to religious freedom.  As paragraph no. 2104 states:  "All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold onto it as they come to know it.  This duty derives from the 'very dignity of the human person.'  It does not contradict a 'sincere respect' for different religions which frequently 'reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men,' nor the requirement of charity, which urges Christians "to treat with love, prudence and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith."

          The respect for religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism.  A Christian (as does the Muslim) believes firmly that his faith is the only true one.  He proposes this true faith to all and sundry, but without in anyway imposing it on anyone.  As 2105 of the Catechism states:  "The duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially.  This is 'the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religions and the one Church of Christ.'  By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them 'to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which they live.'  The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and good.  It requires them to make known the worship for the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church.  Christians are called to be the light of the world.  Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies."

          "Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits.'  This right is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order.  For this reason it 'continues o exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it.' "

          "The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within the just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities.  This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right."

            It is providential that two neighboring populous countries in Southeast Asia--Indonesia and the Philippines--represent two of the major religions of the world today, Islam and Christianity, respectively.  Both countries have constitutions and institutions that meticulously respect religious freedom.  Leaders in both countries should take it upon themselves to promote dialogues all over the world so that the examples of respect for religious freedom which they preach and live can make a significant contribution to global peace and security.  For comments, my email address is