ROME — The Vatican’s foreign minister on Thursday warned against a “deterioration in the condition of the fundamental freedom” of religious liberty, which he said in several cases has reached the level of “open persecution.”

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, The Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, was speaking on “The Holy See and the defense of the right to religious freedom from Pius XI to Francis” at an event in Milan.

He said this deterioration can be seen not only in authoritarian and non-democratic states, but also in democratic countries, “both because of problems inherent in a multicultural situation, and due to the the ideological affirmation of a secularist vision, in which religions represent a subculture, which represent a past which must be overcome.”

Gallagher said even Europe is not immune, and described a “disturbing increase of intolerance and incidents of discrimination against Christians” on the continent.

The archbishop noted that in 2015, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution entitled “Tackling intolerance and discrimination in Europe with a special focus on Christians,” in which, among other things, it called upon States to take appropriate measures to ensure that every person in Europe is afforded effective protection of freedom of religion.

“In the current context, it seems so intrinsically contradictory to demand freedom for all, and in the name of that same freedom, deny it to some groups, especially religious ones,” Gallagher said.

“It must, therefore, be a duty of institutions to oppose any form of discrimination based on religion and, in a positive way, to promote and protect religious freedom in the same way and with all the tools used to defend any other fundamental right.”

However, the member states of the Council of Europe do not always live up to these standards.

He cited the statistics of the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe, which received 1,700 reports of incidents against Christians in the years 2014-2015.

Gallagher said it was important to remember that it was Christianity that first spoke about the separation of “what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God,” leading to the creation of the modern secular state.

He said this is understood “not to completely separate the state from religion, or even worse, create an agnostic state, but a state which, aware of the religious reference of the values of its citizens, guarantees everyone the right to live according to their conscience in the religious dimension.”

The Vatican diplomat said this must be done on the individual and societal level, while having “equal respect” for those who do not believe in a transcendent power.

The degree of religious liberty is an “essential criterion” for measuring the level of freedom in a society, and the underlying health of a democracy, Gallagher said.

“Therefore, any form of restriction of religious freedom undermines the harmony of social life,” the archbishop continued, “facilitating the way of religious fundamentalism and radicalization.”

He said religious freedom is “the essential condition” for the Church to carry out its mission, and that the Vatican will constantly speak out on this issue, especially in those places where it is not guaranteed, or has fewer protections.

Gallagher also said the Vatican favors “a direct, institutionalized dialogue” between civil authorities and religious groups of different confessions. He said this applies to every level of government, from local authorities to international organizations.

“Such a dialogue is particularly important for a multipolar society,” he said. “In fact, if religions are not part of the solution, they can easily become part of the problem.”

Gallagher said current events show how important a “religious sensibility” can be in solving problems.

The archbishop pointed out the world is “going through a time of international crisis which has not been seen since the end of World War II,” and added that these challenges are happening while “the fundamental values of Christian humanism” are fading away in the consciousness of many people.

“The greatest risk we face in the face of a phenomenon of this magnitude is to close in on ourselves, and give in to the ‘globalization of indifference’ so often denounced by Pope Francis,” Gallagher said.