MUMBAI, India – When religion is “instrumentalized or politicized for vested interests,” the cause of peace is put “in jeopardy,” an Indian archbishop has told a forum on religious liberty in the Asia-Pacific region.

Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai said most at fault are “political or religious leaders, commercialized by the business world or observed with indifference by secular society.”

Machado, who served as under-secretary of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 199-2008, said there have been many human rights violations taking place right now among religious people in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and government-imposed emergency restrictions.

“In my experience, I have always made efforts to approach the right to religious freedom by encouraging the practice of interreligious dialogue. For the two go together. It is like many of those ‘duos’: law and love must go together; questioning and listening must go together; getting to know and to understand must go together,” the archbishop said during the Aug. 21 webinar.

Asia is the scene of some of the most egregious examples of religious freedom violations. In the 2020 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, fourteen countries were recommended to be put on the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC), a designation established under the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA) of 1998. Twelve of those countries were in Asia: Burma (Myanmar), China, India, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

Under IRFA, particularly severe violations of religious freedom means “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations . . . , including violations such as — (A) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (B) prolonged detention without charges; (C) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (D) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

During the webinar, Machado said the issue of freedom of religion is not only about curtailing or withholding of the right to freedom to practice one’s religion.

“In most cases the dire consequences are the brutal violence which has been systematically inflicted on believers, especially of the minority population who wish to follow their conscience,” the archbishop said

“The right to religious freedom can be said to be the measure of a society’s respect for other fundamental rights. Repression of the right to freedom of religion is to be deplored as an affront to the dignity of the persons involved,” he continued. “We should together uphold religious freedom for all. To prevent others from freely professing their religion is tantamount to jeopardizing our own.”

Machado also said freedom of religion is not only about our ability to practice religion in the private sphere, but it is also about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all people in society.

“The question needs to be asked, ‘what is the role of religion in secular society?’ Is religion part of the problem or is it a part of the solution to the problem in our post-modern society? Religion must come to grips with the realities of the human condition on earth. Religion must meet challenges of alienation and reconciliation, of hurt and healing, of war and peace lest it becomes marginal to people’s life,” he said.

The archbishop said religion – “which claims to operate in the name of God, the Symbol of life” – cannot be on the side of death.

“The promotion of hatred, violence and war is the opposite of what true religion is all about,” he said.

“The adherents of different religions themselves need to be together, not in the sense of a conspiracy, but as a believing community to provide resource to the building up of the nation. With openness to others, but without conceding to compromises or striking the least common denominator, adherents of different religions and those belonging to no religion should cultivate friendly and cordial relations across religious borders,” Machado said.

“Unless believers of each religion, regardless of majority or minority population, defend the right to religious freedom robustly, no religion will escape the grave plight that all religious believers face around the world. Assassinations, bombings of sacred places, torching of religious institutions, all these because systematic denials of basic human rights are found in the laws of several countries, and sadly this results in the acts of unprovoked violence,” he added.

The archbishop said that a common threat to all faith groups is the tendency to reduce the freedom of religion to the mere freedom of private worship, and all believers should therefore strengthen religious freedom by promoting interreligious dialogue.

“One must not forget that when religion is taken out and judged in isolation, it suffers from unfair and unjust treatment,” he said.

“A just peace must enshrine a guaranteed respect for the legitimate rights of everyone, independently of ethnic origin, political conviction or religious creed. It means creating an environment that favors the development of democratic, peaceful and pluralistic societies in which individuals can think, search, doubt and believe in a free manner. It is where everyone can express their deepest convictions alone or together with others,” Machado said.

“The role of religion in contributing to peace and harmony in modern society cannot be underestimated.”