Pope Francis Opens St. John’s Conference on International Religious Freedom

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Religious freedom is a “fundamental right of man, reflecting his highest dignity” and “an indispensible condition for fully realizing human potential.” This was a central message imparted by Pope Francis during a private audience that included some 75 St. John’s alumni, faculty, students, trustees, and friends in the Hall of the Consistory in the Papal Palace on Friday, June 20, 2014. The audience marked the start of a two-day conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” jointly sponsored by the Center for Law and Religion and the Center for International and Comparative Law at St. John’s Law and the Department of Law at the Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta (LUMSA), a private Catholic university in Rome. The conference was organized by St. John’s Law professors Mark L. Movsesian, Marc O. DeGirolami, and Margaret E. McGuinness, and by LUMSA professor Monica Lugato.

Private Audience with Pope Francis
The papal audience began with an address by LUMSA’s rector, Giuseppe Dalla Torre. Dean Michael A. Simons then addressed the Holy Father on behalf of St. John’s. Dean Simons shared that St. John’s University was founded in 1870 by the Congregation of the Mission, and remains a Catholic and Vincentian University very close to the heart of the church. With almost 20,000 students, it is the second largest Catholic University in the U.S., well known for its commitment to Catholic education and for its dedication to animating the mission of St. Vincent de Paul in service to the poor and disenfranchised. St. John’s is also known for its excellent law school, Dean Simons explained, which educates outstanding lawyers through its diverse curricular offerings. Those offerings include the Center for Law and Religion, dedicated to studying the difficult questions at the intersection of law and religion, and the Center for International and Comparative Law, which provides a forum for exploring law in its global context.

“You are an inspiration to all of us here today, to all of the St. John’s family back home, and to me personally,” Dean Simons told Pope Francis, expressing gratitude to the Holy Father for his leadership of the Church and for supporting the conference. Dean Simons then presented Pope Francis— a soccer enthusiast—with a personalized St. John’s soccer jersey, which the Pope received warmly.

As reported in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper, Pope Francis then addressed the assembled conference participants. Reflecting on the importance of religious freedom and the continuing danger of religious persecution, he stressed that legal regimes—both national and international—must recognize and protect religious freedom, because it is an essential human right and because it is “an indicator of a healthy democracy and one of the main sources of the legitimacy of the State.” Expressing “great pain” at the widespread religious persecution of Christians throughout the world, he said: “The persecution of Christians today is even more virulent than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening 1700 years after the edict of Constantine, which granted Christians the freedom to publically profess their faith.”

The Pope concluded his message by expressing his hope that the conference would “illustrate, with eminent scientific rigor and depth, the reasons that oblige every legal authority to respect and defend religious freedom.” Before the audience ended, the Pope personally greeted many of the guests.

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See press coverage
Read translation of Pope Francis's remarks
Read Ambassador Hackett's remarks

Conference Proceedings
Over the next two days, the conference proved to be an occasion of fruitful dialogue among leading scholars from around the globe, practicing lawyers, and diplomats, and among people of different faiths and no faith. It contributed to the growing body of scholarship and knowledge about religious freedom at the international, national, and local levels, and it helped to identify the challenges to religious freedom at the international level as well as the most effective methods of protecting religious freedom across the globe.

Thomas Farr, an eminent scholar of law and religion at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, keynoted the conference and discussed the historical and current panorama of international religious freedom. Three panel sessions followed. The first concerned political and diplomatic perspectives on religious freedom. Panelists included the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt; the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Hon. Ken Hackett; and Pasquale Annicchino of the European University Institute.

In the second session, three distinguished academics, Roberto Zaccaria of the University of Florence, Marco Ventura of the University of Siena and Catholic University Leuven, and Francisca Pérez-Madrid of the University of Barcelona, explored several issues in comparative religious freedom: the right of asylum in cases of religious persecution; religious liberty in Europe, where the demands of European political and legal integration must be balanced against respect for national identity; and the Italian context, in which legislation on religious freedom is slowly emerging.

The third panel focused on Islamic and Christian perspectives on religious freedom and international human rights, and brought together highly respected voices in these areas: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im of Emory University, Olivier Roy of the European University Institute, and Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute. Among other things, this panel addressed the worldwide persecution of Christians, particularly at the hands of Islamist groups, that Pope Francis had addressed in his remarks. Professor Giuseppe Dalla Torre, a noted expert in the area of law and religion, offered concluding remarks.

“This was the third international conference the Center for Law and Religion has sponsored,” said Professor Movsesian, “and the first to include an address by the Pope!” He continued, “It was wonderful to work with our colleagues at the Center for International and Comparative Law and at LUMSA.” Professor DeGirolami added, “It really was quite special and memorable to have the Pope give remarks on a subject that we study here at the center, at an audience we attended, for a conference that we organized.” Professor McGuinness noted that “the Conference highlighted for students the challenges facing governments like the U.S., which have incorporated religious freedom into their human rights policies, as well as the UN, which much balance the interests of different national and regional traditions when defining and protecting freedom of religion, a core commitment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Reception Honoring U.S. Ambassador Hackett and Additional Weekend Activities
The St. John’s participants—including alumni, members of the Advisory Boards of the Centers for Law and Religion and International and Comparative Law, and student fellows of the centers and International Honors scholars—were treated to a full suite of activities before and during the conference. On the Thursday before the conference, they attended the Law and Religion Seminar taught by Professors Movsesian and DeGirolami as part of the Law School’s Rome summer program. They also took a guided tour of two ancient Christian churches, the Basilicas of San Clemente and Santi Quattro Coronati. That evening, Dean Simons and his wife, Karen, hosted a dinner for the alumni guests at the Hotel Intercontinental, while Professor DeGirolami co-hosted a dinner for the conference speakers. The conference and related activities were funded by generous gifts from Mary Kay Vyskocil ’83, James Griffin ’02, and W. Mark and Becky Lanier.

A highlight of the conference weekend was an evening reception held in the courtyard of St. John’s Rome campus in honor of Ambassador Kenneth F. Hackett, who spent 40 years at Catholic Relief Services, including serving as its president from 1993 to 2012. In attendance were many members of the Vatican diplomatic corps, including the Ambassadors to the Holy See from Australia, Benin, Brazil, Bulgaria, Taiwan, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Ecuador, Honduras, Hungary, Lithuania, Mexico, Monaco, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, and others. In his remarks to the assembled guests, Dean Simons praised Ambassador Hackett’s long service with Catholic Relief Services. “Wherever there was pain and suffering, Ken Hackett was there, bringing relief and bringing healing,” Dean Simons noted. “For 40 years, he truly walked in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul.” Dean Simons then presented the ambassador with an award recognizing his Vincentian leadership and service.

“The audience with Pope Francis was a remarkable occasion for the St. John’s community, for St. John’s Law, and for me, personally.” Dean Simons said, reflecting on the three days. “The conference showcased our outstanding faculty and excellent centers. It also provided a tremendous learning opportunity for the many students who participated. We are honored and blessed to have involved Pope Francis in our scholarly dialogue on religious freedom, and we look forward to continuing this vital conversation back home at St. John’s in the near future and for years to come.”