The Catholic University of America

Sept. 12, 2013

Scholars Examine Religious Freedom and Human Rights in the Holy Land

  Cardinal McCarrick

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, noted that the path to peace in the Middle East must be built on a foundation of human rights and religious freedom.

The path to peace in the Middle East is built on a foundation of human rights and religious freedom, said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, at Catholic University in his keynote address at the Sept. 9 conference “Religious Freedom & Human Rights: Path to Peace in the Holy Land. That All May Be Free.”

Meeting at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, Church leaders, scholars, and policy makers examined the relationship of human rights to religious freedom in the Holy Land from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives with the hope of contributing to the peace process and fostering respect among peoples of the region.

Cardinal McCarrick had just returned from Jordan, along the Syrian border, where he had traveled as part of his work on the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), which advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He said that the number of Christians in the Middle East has diminished drastically. “We know … the estimate of Christians in Iraq before the invasion was around 950,000. And now there are some 250,000.” Some of them went to Syria, he said, others to Kurdistan, and others “to heaven.”

religious freedom and human rights conference  
Participants listen to Cardinal McCarrick's talk.  

He also noted the numbers of refugees flooding into Jordan has surpassed half a million, far beyond the capacity of the country to absorb them. “As you watch, people are fleeing from Syria, and you see the tremendous difficulties they are facing there.”

It’s the children who are suffering the most, he said. In some cases, these refugees are fleeing a second time as many of them originally came from Iraq. “They are saying, ‘I don’t know where home is, I don’t know where I belong, and I don’t know how long I’ll be here.’”

Religious freedom means more than just a place to worship, he continued. “The Holy Father said to us, very clearly, the freedom of religion means you are able to live your religion, to proclaim your own message and who you are, with gratitude to God. That is a basic human right.”

Brother Peter Bray, vice chancellor of Bethlehem University, spoke about the complex challenges faced by the school’s 3,000 students, among them the conflicting religious rules and tribal traditions as well as the actual restriction of students’ movements and access to worship sites as a result of the separation wall built between the territories and Israel.

  Brother Peter Bray
  Brother Peter Bray

In order to attend classes and to access holy sites, students must obtain permits as well as pass through checkpoints guarded by Israeli soldiers.

He reminded participants of the differences between the concept of religious freedom in the Middle East and the West. In the Middle East, religious freedom is more about the freedom to worship or gather as opposed to the Western concept of the freedom of conscience.

Stephen Schneck, director of CUA’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies which co-sponsored the conference, said by focusing on religious liberty, the organizers hoped to offer a fresh perspective on the path to peace in the Holy Land.

“The on-ground realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compromise the religious liberty of all the region’s people of faith,” he said. “Jews, Muslims, and Christians find the practice of their faiths challenged.”

Earlier in the day, President John Garvey spoke of the Catholic commitment to peace as expressed by Pope Francis.

“[Pope Francis] reminded us that working for peace begins with prayer, something that we ought to remember a little more often,” said Garvey. “But promoting peace must also come from political and social action. We work for peace within our own families, in our cities, our countries, and we have a duty to encourage peace worldwide among people of every nation and culture.”

In addition to the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services co-sponsored the conference.

For more information about the conference, with links to speeches and videos of the presentations, see




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