VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday (Dec. 16) called limits on religious freedom a “threat to security and peace,” and said Christians are persecuted more than any other faith group.
The pope, in his annual message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, said the freedom to profess and express one’s faith is an “authentic weapon of peace” now under threat, especially in Iraq.

The message made special mention of the plight of Iraqi Christians, recalling the Oct. 31 attack on a Catholic cathedral in Baghdad where dozens of worshippers, including two priests, were killed by gunmen linked to al-Qaida.

Benedict, continuing a constant theme of his papacy, also warned against “more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility” aimed at Christians in the West, especially in an increasingly secular Europe.

The pope warned that the “religious fundamentalism” that threatens the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East and European hostility to faith are both “extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity.”

In Britain and some U.S. cities, Catholic social service agencies have stopped offering adoption services in the face of anti-discrimination laws that require gay couples be given equal consideration.

Europe’s top human rights court ruled last year that Italy should ban crucifixes in schoolrooms, provoking outrage from the Catholic Church and from all political parties.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said on Thursday (Dec. 16) that religious freedom is also violated when doctors “are denied license because they will not terminate pregnancies.”

The pope’s message, in a veiled reference to hard-line Islamic countries, also said “there should be no obstacles” to an individual’s right to change religions or even to “profess none at all.”

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