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The History of Religious Freedom in Europe PDF Print E-mail

Antonio Stango
Italian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Italy

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, I am very glad to have the opportunity to address you in this conference in a town that has such symbolic value in history, not only for Europe, but for the issue concerning our conference: the struggle for freedom. It is exactly from the recent history of Berlin that I am going to start my presentation today.

Many years ago, in June 1989, I came to Berlin for a demonstration against the Wall. From the plane, I clearly saw the Wall for the first time. Although I was a specialist in Central and East European issues, the impression was extremely dramatic. I asked myself how the world could tolerate such a monstrous division. I asked not from a political, but from a spiritual point of view. I recalled what had originally provoked this division. Basically, it was intolerance. The most tremendous organized intolerance in history. From intolerance, all followed: millions of victims, the bombing of Europe, and the military occupation of Germany. The ideological schemes of the Soviet system were just the immediate cause of the Wall.

To speak about religious freedom is to speak about religious intolerance and persecution. I need not remind this highly aware audience of the most significant steps taken in the last 3,000 years of European history, toward the achievement of a complete freedom of consciousness. What I would prefer to stress is that a positive result has never been definite. Historically, what had been obtained once was lost a few decades later. Possibly only now, at the end of the second millennium of our age, do we have the unprecedented possibility to fix a stable European standard of freedom.

There was a considerable level of freedom—not for slaves, and not so much for women—in ancient Athens. This allowed the fantastic spread of philosophical theories, mythological tales, and scientific progress as well. Nevertheless, all these did not prevent sentencing Socrates to death. Just a few centuries later, Greece was conquered by Rome. To some extent, the defeated Greeks managed to win by teaching the Romans a lot about their own culture. Then, Egyptian and Persian cults were successfully introduced in Europe. There was a moment in the Roman Empire when tolerance seemed to be permanent. The Pantheon, the best preserved and most magnificent Roman temple of the first century, can help us to understand. . . .

Then came the time of massive conversions, usually starting with the conversion of the landlords, sometimes by persuasion, more often by violence. If a king or queen—as in Kiev in 988 for instance—was not ready to receive the baptism, the usual method to convince them and their peoples was war. The ancient Russians paid the highest price. They were completely exterminated. At the end of the Middle Ages, they had been definitely extinguished as a people. Their own Baltic language disappeared, and their invaders took even the name of their homeland.

In Lithuania, during the founding Vilnius at the beginning of the fourteenth century, Jewish craftsmen were invited to establish themselves there. Having been the last Europeans to be christianized, the Lithuanians experimented with tolerance toward the community that, less than two centuries later, would be expelled from Spain, and for a long period, would live in ghettos suffering serious discriminations in many countries. I gave an account of this in the Washington conference last April.

Then, starting from my country, Italy, came the age of Humanism. The spread of ideas through the new extremely powerful medium of the press, the possibility to produce and distribute directly to the people a large amount of books, the revival of studies of classical literature and languages, the new discoveries of forgotten manuscripts—all these together contributed to the proliferation of new approaches to religion. There was a magic moment when one of the greatest theorists of this period, Erasmus, had the feeling that a golden age of concord was going to come. It was the time when Pope Leo X founded the Roman College of Knowledge.

The attitude of Erasmus changed drastically when the reform was carried out in a primarily confrontational and violent way. The result was destruction, ruin, and misery everywhere, under the false pretext of religion. The idea of the ruler of each state settling the religion of his subjects according to the principle, cuius regio, eius religio, that was established by the Peace of Augsburg, and recognized by Charles V in 1555, produced millions of victims.

To escape persecution in their own countries, many people began to emigrate. Among them were the Pilgrim Fathers, who reached America aboard the Mayflower. Therefore, to some extent, the violence of this period became the origin of a new age of tolerance, as those who escaped from old Europe sought to find a new place in America.

Then there are the religious wars, the St. Bartholomew bloodshed in France in 1572, for instance. How can we forget all that when we speak about the history of religious freedom? We have to remember the history of all of the blood that was shed in Europe through the centuries. Then, Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598. At last, there was recognition of the possibility for Protestants to profess their own faith and religion. Protestant strongholds were protected, until Louis XIV decided to take them over.

In England, the country that created the modern ideal of democracy, no special signs of tolerance or religious freedom appeared for a long time. The Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, is one of the first international documents on religious tolerance. However, of course, no one among us ignores the fact that this achievement followed the Thirty Years War, one of the most catastrophic in European history. In this way, the step by step progress in the history of tolerance has always gone hand in hand with the history of catastrophe and violence.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent in Italy prompted Catholic reform. The decisions of the Council of Trent are often considered solely as an attempt to save as much as possible in the Catholic Church after the Protestant reform. Indeed, something important happened during the Catholic reform, from the point of view of increasing the spirit of tolerance. For instance, the reforms allowed people to read the scriptures directly, even if only in official and commented versions.

Later, Voltaire set a milestone in history when he declared that, though “I disapprove of what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is a monument to the modern concept of freedom. Voltaire was wise, on the other hand, to live outside of France, probably feeling that hard times were coming there. The bloody coalition of the masses and Jacobean intellectuals during the French Revolution was responsible for so many crimes against humanity that we should seriously review the Romantic idea that 1789 France was the homeland of human rights.

Nevertheless, the symbolic value of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and, in my opinion even more, the symbolic value of the earlier Declaration of Independence of the United States of America of 1776, have always been and still are very powerful. Words alone are not enough to improve the world, but they can have an extraordinary impact.

Let me go to the conclusion. The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is extremely important. My organization, the Italian Helsinki Committee, is organizing a main conference in Rome this coming October 8 to October 10. Within the framework of the fiftieth anniversary, we will devote three days to a conference on human rights in Europe. Of course, we would be pleased to have many of you there.

All of the people of the world do not yet really share the common values that almost all of the world’s states have officially agreed to in the Universal Declaration. Still, it is a paramount instrument to extend the borders of freedom throughout the world. We just need to use that instrument more. Religious freedom is a principal element of the Universal Declaration, and of our lives. May the activities of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom be successful in improving its complete understanding and implementation.