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Book Review – A world of diversity

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The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences dedicated its plenary session in 2011 to analysing developments in human rights worldwide. Human rights are increasingly quoted in international relations, but not always observed with the same dedication. This volume brings together the 34 inputs given by various specialists on the theme of religious freedom.

The Pontifical Academy is particularly interested in religious freedom because the dilemmas and controversies in this area are symbolic of the current crisis of the entire human rights project. The close relation of religious freedom to other basic rights was emphasized by Pope John Paul II. The right to religious liberty, he said, “is so closely linked to the other fundamental rights, that it can rightly be argued that respect for religious freedom is, as it were, a touchstone for the observance of the other fundamental rights …. The State’s respect for the right to freedom of religion is a sign of respect for the other fundamental human rights, in that it is an implicit recognition of the existence of an order which transcends the political dimension of existence”.
Today, nearly every nation in the world is officially committed to freedom of religion as a fundamental human right. Yet, those who believed that a common acceptance of human rights would be enough to favour their implementation were proved wrong. We cannot underestimate the tensions as well as the contradictions present in our world. We cannot underestimate human frailty, either. The temptation to overrun others’ rights in view of greater achievements for the nation is always present.
The papers examine the uneasy progress of the concept of religious freedom: its gradual acceptance in religious and political settings; and the persistent lack of consensus on its meaning, foundations, and relation to other rights. Other presentations focus on the main challenges to religious freedom, and to ways of addressing those challenges. They examine the problem of how a universal right to freedom of religion can be understood in the light of manifest differences among religions, cultures, nations, schools of interpretation, formulations of rights, and modes of implementation. A more practical view is offered by experts from diverse regions and cultures who discuss what can be learned from the experiences of societies in dealing with their principal trouble spots. Particularly important are the papers about relation between religious freedom and public authorities.
This volume is no easy read. Yet, the extremely well researched papers cover many areas of interest and those who wish to have a bird eye vision of religious freedom in the world today, will find plenty of material for their research. Papers are published in the original language of presentation. This could be a negative point in a book mainly in English, with the odd papers in Italian, French and German; particularly because a summary is not offered.

Universal Rights in a World of Diversity, the case of religious freedom, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Acta 17, edited by Mary Ann Glendon and Hans F. Zacher, pp 700, Vatican City 2012.

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