VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict voiced the Catholic Church’s deep concern over “hostility and prejudice” against Christianity in Europe on Thursday, saying creeping secularism was just as bad as religious fanaticism.
In the message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, marked on Jan. 1, he also reiterated recent condemnations of lack of religious freedom in countries in the Middle East where Christians are a minority, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
He said Christians were the most persecuted religious group in the world and that it was “unacceptable” that in some places they had to risk their lives to practise their faith.
But he reserved his strongest words for Europe, where the Church says it is under assault by some national governments and European institutions over issues such as gay marriage, abortion and the use of Christian religious symbols in public places.
“I also express my hope that in the West, and especially in Europe, there will be an end to hostility and prejudice against Christians because they are resolved to orient their lives in a way consistent with the values and principles expressed in the Gospel,” he said in the message.
“May Europe rather be reconciled to its own Christian roots, which are fundamental for understanding its past, present and future role in history ...,” he said.
The message, this year called “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace,” is traditionally sent to world leaders, national and international institutions such as the United Nations.
The Pope put what the Vatican has termed “aggressive secularism”, such as gay marriage and restrictions on religious symbols such as crucifixes, nativity scenes and other traditions, on the same level as religious fanaticism.
“The same determination that condemns every form of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism must also oppose every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life,” he said.
“It should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity.”
Church officials have expressed concerns over what they see as growing “Christianophobia” in the developed world.
A top Vatican official addressed it at the recent summit of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kazakhstan and Christian groups have set up the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians.
The Vatican criticised plans to propose legislation in Britain — known as the Equality Bill — that could force churches to hire homosexuals or transsexuals.
Ten European states are backing Italy’s appeal to the continent’s top human rights court to overturn its ban on crucifixes in schools, a ruling that caused outrage across the political spectrum in Italy when it was handed down last year.
In France, the erecting of the traditional nativity scene, or creche, in public places, has caused disputes because some say they violate the country’s principle of “laicite”, or the strict separation of church and state.
In a reference to these episodes, the Pope said that in Western countries, “sophisticated forms of hostility” find their expression in the “denial of history and the rejection of religious symbols which reflect the identity and the culture of the majority of citizens”.
A Vatican official presenting the message told a news conference that between 200 million and 300 million Christians “face daily threats of murder, beating, imprisonment and murder and a further 350-400 million encounter discrimination in areas such as jobs and housing”.
Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan; editing by Philippa Fletcher