By Ellen Kryger Fantini, JD

In an April 2016 homily, Pope Francis stated there are two types of Christian persecution. The first is explicit violence against Christians, such as the targeted Easter Sunday church bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019. The second form is what Pope Francis referred to as “polite persecution … disguised as culture, disguised as modernity, disguised as progress”. The message, he said, is: “if you don’t do this, you will be punished: you’ll lose your job and many other things, or you’ll be set aside”.[1]

The first type, violent persecution perpetrated against believers of many faiths, is well documented in this report and elsewhere. The second type, “polite persecution”, also exists in developing and developed nations and affects many faith groups. Its manifestations include interference with freedom of conscience, expression, and association, as well as denial of access to justice, certain jobs, education programs, and legal services; all this is often done in the name of “new” or conflicting rights. In 2018, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, expressed concern over “a radically individualistic interpretation of certain rights and the affirmation of ‘new rights’”.[2]

For example, in several countries in the OSCE region, the right to conscientious objection on religious grounds for health care professionals and pharmacists is no longer meaningfully protected in law. In October 2019, a multi-faith declaration against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, signed by Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish representatives, was presented to Pope Francis. The aim of the declaration was to “present the positions of the monotheistic faiths concerning ‘the values and practices relevant to the dying patient’”, and to affirm that “no health care provider should be coerced or pressured to either directly or indirectly assist in the deliberate and intentional death of a patient through assisted suicide or any form of euthanasia, especially when it is against the religious beliefs of the provider.” Instead, as the declaration sets out, conscientious objection “should be respected”.[3]

Provisions for the right of religious groups to run their own schools according to their own ethos are also in jeopardy in several countries.[4] Furthermore, graduates from particular confessional universities are increasingly denied access to certain professions.[5] Parents from various faiths continue to protest against policies which require their children to be taught particular subjects, such as sexual education, that conflict with the tenets of their religions.[6]

Perhaps one of the most worrying legal developments, however, is “equality” or hate crime legislation. These laws often criminalise acts which are represented as contributing to “stirring up hatred”. For example, the expression – even in private settings – of beliefs consistent with religion and the moral teaching of various faiths, including Judaism, Islam, and Christianity could be deemed as “stirring up hatred”.[7] Widening the definition of “hate” poses a serious threat to the meaningful exercise of the fundamental right to religious freedom and to freedom of expression.

The failure to understand the proper role of religion, and its practice by individuals in the public square, “continues to feed into sentiments and manifestations of intolerance and discrimination against Christians, what might well be termed ‘the last acceptable prejudice’ in many societies”, said Archbishop Gallagher.[8]

As Pope Francis states, this reductionist approach to the understanding of religious freedom seeks to consign religions to the “quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or relegates them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques”. This represents a radical interpretation of the meaning of “secularity” on the part of a government, whose duty is to keep the public square open to all religions and none.


[1] “Two kinds of persecution”, Pope Francis, Morning Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, 12th April 2016; (accessed 25th January 2021).

[2] “Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Intervention of the Secretary for Relations with States at the Council of Europe for the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, 10th September 2018; (accessed 1st March 2021).

[3] “Joint declaration against assisted suicide presented to Pope Francis”, by Carol Glatz, The Catholic Register, 3rd November 2019; (accessed  3rd March 2021).

[4] “President Biden Has Promised to Pass the Equality Act—Here’s How That Threatens Your Freedoms”, Alliance Defending Freedom, 18th February 2021; (accessed 1 st March 2021).

[5] “Trinity Western University Community Covenant Agreement”, Trinity Western University;, (accessed 21st April 2020).

[6] “Ontario Teachers’ Perceptions of the Controversial Update to Sexual Health and Human Development”, Canadian Journal of Education, Canadian Society for the Study of Education, 2019; file:///C:/Users/kink560/AppData/Local/Temp/3527-Article%20Text-14239-1-10-20190324.pdf

[7] “Scotland: Church leaders urge withdrawal of controversial section of Hate Crime Bill to allow ‘adequate consideration’”, Independent Catholic News, 12th February 2021; (accessed 1st March 2021).

[8] Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Intervention of the Secretary for Relations with States at the 25th Ministerial Council of the OSCE in Milan, 7th December 2018; (accessed 1st March 2021).