'Christianophobia' - a new social evil?

A Vatican diplomatic campaign to have "Christianophobia" recognised as an evil equal to hatred of Jews and Muslims is causing concern among some Christian activists and diplomats who draft new human rights rules.

The discrete drive, which the Roman Catholic Church first mentioned publicly last Friday, seeks official recognition by the United Nations and other international organisations of discrimination against and persecution of Christians.

The Holy See is pressing this point despite two setbacks this year when the European Union refused to refer to the continent's Christian heritage in its new constitution and turned down a traditionalist Catholic as a new commissioner.

In discussing religious bias, the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva now speaks of "anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Christianophobia", terms the current General Assembly in New York is due to approve later this month.

"Obviously we have seen many countries where Christian minorities are in danger, but we don't think this is the appropriate way to really ensure protection," said Alessandra Aula of Franciscans International, a Catholic pressure group.

"What we fear is that this is the way to start eroding universal human rights," she said from her office in Geneva. "You will then have Sikhs and Buddhists and all the others coming and claiming rights. Where does it end?"

This campaign has been so discrete that the term was hardly known until the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, said last Friday that the Holy See had insisted the UN list it along with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

"It should be recognised that the war against terrorism, even though necessary, had as one of its side-effects the spread of 'Christianophobia' in vast areas of the globe," he told a US-organised conference on religious freedom in Rome.

The World Council of Churches (WCC), which is also based in Geneva and unites over 340 Protestant and Orthodox churches around the globe, said it was not consulted on the new term.

"There is always a risk with these kinds of labels," said WCC international affairs director Peter Weiderud. "It's not helpful to look at the problem as one religion against another."

In the United States, a major evangelical Protestant publisher and a prominent religious rights activist also said they had never heard the term.

The Vatican has suggested the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna include Christianophobia as an evil to be monitored, diplomats there say. But the OSCE annual session now under way in Sofia was unlikely to fully back that.

"We don't want any more terms ending in 'phobia'," a diplomat there said. "Once you single out something beyond racism and xenophobia, you have to list so many of them."

Doudou Diene, the UN special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, said specifying certain religions was acceptable if the universal nature of religious discrimination was also noted.

He said the problem arose because some countries tried "to put a hierarchy among different forms of discrimination."

Vatican officials say privately they could not stand aside while Judaism and Islam got special attention at the UN, which demands regular status reports from member countries on issues officially recognised as problems of international concern.

A US Jesuit expert on religious freedom noted Christian minorities were persecuted in countries like Pakistan and India.

"I think there is Christianophobia out there and it's not recognised," said Drew Christiansen, deputy editor of America magazine in New York. "Christians have a sense of being a privileged majority, so we don't see ourselves as victims."

But even he had to confess he had not heard the term Christianophobia until the Human Rights Commission invited him to discuss the issue at a meeting last month.