Zdenka Fantlova’s The Tin Ring and Vasily Grossman’s The Road – remembering the realities of the Holocaust.

Before attending a performance of the powerful drama, The Tin Ring, brilliantly brought to life by Jane Arnfield in the intimacy of Mr.Speaker’s House at Westminster, I hadn’t known that Zdenka Fantlova would be in the audience.

Zdenka Fantlova with Jane Arnfield

Zdenka Fantlova with Jane Arnfield

It would be impossible not to be profoundly moved by the poignant and harrowing story of this now elderly woman. And where better to be challenged to affirm life over death and love over hate, than in the heart of the British Parliament – a building which also survived Nazi attempts to destroy it, along with the democratic values it represents.

The Tin Ring

The Tin Ring

As The Tin Ring unfolds we learn that, somehow, the remarkable Zdenka defied all the odds, all the horrors of the concentration camps, and somehow survived.

Somehow, she had retained and never been separated from the tin ring which Arno, the boy she loved, had secretly passed to her in the camp.

And, somehow, this troth serves as a repudiation of the visceral hatred and violence represented by Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen Belsen and all the other monstrous Nazi extermination centres.

The Tin Ring

The Tin Ring

The Tin Ring takes us into Dante’s Hell but here is someone who has survived and emerged to give the lie to Hitler’s confident belief that he could act with impunity and never be held to account; someone who is able to speak for the countless mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers whose kith and kin were slaughtered; someone able to channel the suffering, pain, and their shocking loss into a defiant testimony.

Zdenka’s story reminds us how great is the power of true humanity; the greatness of the power of love; the triumph of life over the ideology and culture of death. Here is a love story to rebuke the evil hate story of the Shoah.

Arno’s tin ring comes to represent love, hope, truth and life itself.

The narrative reminds an all too easily forgetful world of the savagery of the Holocaust: the indifference, the silence, or collaboration of so many; and the danger of “never again” happening all over again in our own times.

The political and moral consequences of this collective amnesia – let alone the catastrophic human consequences – are appalling.

The Tin Ring uses the powerful medium of drama to address this danger of collective forgetfulness and obscene attempts to rewrite or minimise the history of those times.

But if collective memory is to have any purpose it must surely prompt us to reflect on reports, at home, of anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of minorities.

What, too, does it say to us about contemporary and horrific genocidal events overseas, from Sudan to North Korea, from Syria to Burma. Or do we mimic Neville Chamberlain’s infamous remark, as Hitler invaded Zdenka’s Czechoslovakia, that it was “a far away country about which we know very little.”

After the Holocaust world leaders declared “never again” – and after every subsequent genocide, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, Burma, Kosovo, and the rest, they have said exactly the same thing.

We need to understand gross inhumanity precisely because it has, does, and will happen all over again.

Not long after watching the Tin Ring a friend gave me a copy of Vasily Grossman’s book, The Road.

It’s a collection of essays and short stories. Some were written after he had written first hand reports of the Battle of Stalingrad for the Soviet press. Grossman – from a Russian secular Jewish background – sees the Communist USSR as the only hope in the struggle against Nazism. After Stalingrad he travels West with the Red Army and takes first hand accounts of the  industrial scale inhumanity which characterised Treblinka. My friend rightly says that The Road “should be compulsory reading for those for whom World War Two is ancient history – as a reminder of how lucky we are to be living in era of relative tranquillity.”

The Road is an amazingly powerful account of the sheer depths of evil to which man can sink. The Treblinka narrative is poignant and disturbing and Grossman’s belief in the Red Army and Lenin’s legacy, now entrusted to Stalin, is touched by a naively optimistic view of Communism. The later stories in his collection, affected by Stalin’s Great Terror and Purges, the Gulags, and the suppression of his own writing, leaves Grossman with a more realistic view of Stalin’s Soviet Union: and he was fortunate that Stalin died just before Grossman himself was about to be arrested.

Stalin died just before Grossman's intended arrest

Stalin died just before Grossman’s intended arrest


In reading The Road and watching The Tin Ring I was reminded of the remark of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, who said “do not ask where was God at Auschwitz, ask where was man.” That same question is at the heart of Zdenka’s story, and Grossman story.

If we are to find the correct answer t0 Sack’s question “where was man?”  we will need to immerse ourselves in accounts like those contained in The Road and how good it would be if  plays like The Tin Ring were staged more widely and seen in universities, civic halls, churches and popular venues – prompting us to raise our voices and to take action on behalf of today’s Zdenkas and Arnos and challenging those who promote their own versions of twentieth century xenophobia and hatred of minorities.

Drama and Music To Make Us Think: Disability Hate Crime, Religious Persecution, Bullying, Relationships, the Holocaust, North Korea, Scapegoating of Minorities…

Ten Ten Theatre Company - "The Jeweller's Shop"

Ten Ten Theatre Company – “The Jeweller’s Shop”

Ten Ten theatre company and "Kolbe's Gift"

Ten Ten theatre company and “Kolbe’s Gift”

Confessions of a Butterfly by Jonathan Salt

Confessions of a Butterfly by Jonathan Salt

Rise - "Soldier to Saint"

Rise – “Soldier to Saint”

Rise Theatre Company

Rise Theatre Company

Actors in Living Without Fear

Actors in Living Without Fear



90%of all babies with Down's Syndrome are victims of eugenic abortions

90%of all babies with Down’s Syndrome are victims of eugenic abortions

A Baby With Down's Syndrome

A Baby With Down’s Syndrome

"Some people think I shouldn't be here, but I am. I'm a human being, and I'm in love." - words of an actor in "Living Without Fear"

“Some people think I shouldn’t be here, but I am. I’m a human being, and I’m in love.” – words of an actor in “Living With Fear”


   A theatre company, consisting primarily, but not exclusively, of actors with learning disabilities, recently came to Westminster to perform their play “Living without Fear” – and in one short hour achieved more in raising awareness about disability hate crime than any number of speeches delivered in Parliament.

   Drama has an extraordinary capacity to move, to touch, and to reach people and this production by Blue Apple Theatre made me reflect on both the issue which the company explored and on the way in which they succeeded in catching my attention.

  Jane Jessop is the founding director of  Blue Apple Theatre.  She says that the British Crime Survey found that each year a truly shocking 65,000 assaults take place against people with disabilities and that “this is probably an underestimate”. Some one million people with learning disabilities live in Britain and Mencap say that up to 90% of people with learning disabilities are bullied and harassed on a regular basis

 Determined to raise awareness among policy makers she believes drama is an effective way to do it. So, she persuaded Steve Brine, her local MP in Winchester, to sponsor a performance of the play and, by kind permission of Mr.Speaker Bercow, this was performed in Mr.Speaker’s House.  Among those who had travelled up to see the play was Hampshire’s Chief Constable, Andy Marsh. Esther McVeigh, the Minister with responsibility for disabled people was also present.

  “Living Without Fear” shines a light on the vulnerability of people who are initially thrilled by the idea of independent living but who then have to come to terms with prejudice and negotiate the visceral hatred of the people with whom they have to live alongside. It’s simply impossible to be left unaffected by the play or by a cast which comprises some of those who have experienced such hatred first hand.

   I was particularly struck by the young actor with Down’s Syndrome who says Some people think I shouldn’t be here, but I am. I’m a human being, and I’m in love.”

  He’s right of course: eugenic abortions now prevent most people with Down’s Syndrome from being here. 90% of babies with Down’s Syndrome have their lives ended in the womb. The violence, discrimination, and prejudice against people with learning difficulties or disability begins at conception. How sad that this young man’s love is met with society’s rejection.

   Jane Jessop says that her first hope in bringing “Living Without Fear” to Westminster “was to bring our talented actors to the heart of Parliament so that people legislating on abortion and other issues would meet whole and rounded people with learning disabilities, especially those with Down’s Syndrome and see their talent and potential.

“I  hope you could see there is no limit to our ambition in helping them realise their potential. Next was to raise the difficult issues around disability hate crime.”

 Blue Apple’s web site shows the breadth and the range of work in which this inclusive theatre company is involved and which deserves to be seen by audiences up and down the country:   

http://www.blueappletheatre.hampshire.org.uk/  and this link features extracts from the play and lets the actors speak for themselves: http://bit.ly/YLcgFg

    Recently I have seen some other brilliant examples of drama being used to explore contemporary themes. At the Easter Celebrate conference in Ilfracombe there were performances by two Catholic theatre groups – Ten Ten and Rise.

  Rise produced some thought-provoking sketches and are now preparing to take their play “Soldier to Saint” on a UK tour from June 28th to July 12th.
Set in 2020, in an England which is persecuting Christians, it’s the story of a soldier, John Alban. Like his Roman namesake, his friendship with a fugitive priest endangers his freedom and his very life. On a daily basis, in many parts of the world, from China to Nigeria, contemporary Albans are deprived of their liberty or their lives and this is a timely reminder not to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy in Britain: (http://www.risetheatre.co.uk/ )
Drama allows the exploration of countless rich and disturbing questions.
Ten Ten used Celebrate to stage a powerful production of “Heart”, a drama which takes on inter-generational relationships and the role a grandmother plays in challenging her grand-daughter’s bullying of another girl.
Later in the year Ten Ten, are back at London’s Leicester Square Theatre where they previously performed “The Jeweller”, an adaptation of John Paul II’s play, “The Jeweller’s Shop” – which examines relationships, friendships, and love, in the context of three couples whose lives become intermingled. The comedian, Frank Skinner, described “The Jeweller” as “deeply funny, gut-wrenchingly sad and thought provoking.”

Between October 1st and 5th Ten Ten turn their attention to another Pole, St.Maximilian Kolbe, whom John Paul called “the patron saint of our difficult century.” This brand new production of “Kolbe’s Gift” – an inspirational play by David Gooderson – takes us to Auschwitz, where the imprisoned Kolbe encounters a soldier, Franek Gajowniczec, and freely gives his own life to save the other (http:www.tententheatre.co.uk).
Like “Confessions of a Butterfly”, the one man play about the life of Janusz Korczak, written and performed by the Catholic writer, Jonathan Salt, and which I saw at a synagogue in London a few months ago, “Kolbe’s Gift” reminds us of the savagery of the Holocaust; the indifference, the silence, or collaboration of so many; and the danger of “never again” happening all over again in our own times.
Salt introduces us to Korcczak’s heroism but also to children like the boy with the violin – who chooses to become selectively mute after watching the execution of his parents. A profoundly moving and poignant story, it’s not one which I will quickly or easily forget.https://davidalton.net/2012/11/02/confessions-of-a-butterfly-the-remarkable-story-of-janusz-korczak/
Each of these dramas explores a different question and tells a different story but they all raise profoundly important issues in a world which can too easily become indifferent and where we need to find a range of different ways to effect change.
And it’s not just drama: art and graphics, writing, poetry and music all have their part to play. The Catholic musicians, Ooberfuse, have just marked North Korea Freedom week with a brilliant song, Vanish the Night, released on Youtube and features the North Korean escapee and human rights campaigner, Shin Dong Hyok: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=be7WTX_z_E8&feature=share.

An earlier song, about the assassination of Pakistan’s Catholic Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, His Blood Cries Out, has now been watched by over 137,000 people http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABOIQfhyh1g .

In every generation we must guard against prejudice and bigotry, racism and xenophobia and cherish our precious freedoms and liberties. In particular, minorities, ranging from people with learning disabilities to vulnerable ethnic groups or dissenting religious believers, need to have their stories told. And, this is a world in which anti-Semitism, racial intolerance, and the scapegoating of minorities – such as homosexuals living in those Commonwealth countries which still impose the death penalty for homosexuality – or Christians facing death in countries like North Korea or Iran – or institutionalised discrimination in the form of caste based prejudice against Dalits in India – are all distempers of our age.
Perhaps music and drama will succeed in waking us up to these horrific realities when speeches and commentaries do not – and maybe challenge us to change our attitudes and our laws.


As antisemitism once again disfigures Europe we should remember our past: Confessions of a Butterfly – the remarkable story of Janusz Korczak

As anti-Semitism once again disfigures Europe we should remember our past


Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head again in Europe – with Jews vilified because of their religion, their race or their State. August 2014 has seen Jews fleeing from Paris after shocking attacks in the Jewish quarter of Sarcelles. Kosher shops have been burnt out, synagogues have been under siege and placards threatening “death to Jews” are openly brandished. This is France 2014 not Germany 1934.

Jews are targeted because they are different and, as we increasingly see in the ISIS controlled areas of the Islamic State, for some ideologues the concept of difference is something which they refuse to countenance. After a visit to northern Iraq a Jewish politician, aware that Christians are persecuted in more than a hundred countries, observed to me that “Christians have become the new Jews.”

But it’s not just Christians: it’s Yazidis, Bahais, Muslim minorities, Ahmadis, secularists or any minority which refuses to conform. Sometimes this naked use of power and violence does so in the corrupted name of religion, sometimes in the name of the same secular ideologies that butchered millions in the twentieth century.

The opening chapters of the Bible, sacred to the Abrahamic faiths, reminds us of a common humanity: that we are “imago Dei” – each made in the image of our Creator. And, phenomenally, each is uniquely different. What a hideous world this would be if every man and woman was identical or forced to abandon their identity . Difference is to be prized and upheld – and the political imperative which flows from this assertion is that we must learn respect, tolerance, and co-existence.

In speaking clearly against a rising tide of anti-Semitism we must also recall our own history…

Also see:



Confessions of a Butterfly.

Pope John Paul II once described his Jewish countryman,

Janusz Korczak 2012

Jonathan Salt – who wrote and performs Confessions of a Butterfly

, as “a symbol of religion and true morality.” Korczak’s story is well known in his native Poland where this 70th anniversary year of his death has been designated as The Year of Janusz Korczak. In Britain his story is becoming better known thanks to a remarkable play written and performed by Jonathan Salt, an English Catholic. I recently went to the Kinloss Synagogue in Finchley to see “Confessions of a Butterfly” and was profoundly moved.

Korczak’s real name was Henryk Goldszmit. A doctor and paediatrician he was an educator and children’s author. He was also director of two children’s orphanages – one Jewish and one Catholic.

During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw over 400,000 Jews were confined to an area of 1.3 square miles – the Warsaw Ghetto. During the summer of 1942, at least 254,000 Jewish people from the Ghetto were herded into cattle trucks and removed to the Treblinka extermination camps. Among them were the 192 Jewish orphans at Dom Sierot orphanage. Their director, Dr.Janusz Korczak, was given the opportunity to go into hiding – and was offered a number of chances to escape – but he refused and insisted on accompanying the children in his care to Treblinka.

In August of this year, exactly 70 years after German soldiers sent these children to their deaths, a plaque was placed at the site of the orphanage and wreaths laid at Korczak’s statue. A letter was read from Anna Komorowska, Poland’s first lady.

If ever we need proof of the rabbi’s teaching that “the man who saves a single life saves the world” surely it was the redemptive and sacrificial life of this remarkable pioneer of children’s care and education. In a discussion which followed the 90 minute stage production Jonathan Salt explained that it is a life which speaks into our own times.

Salt describes Korczak as “phenomenally brave” and says he “gave children a sense of dignity at a time when the world was stripping it from them” ; that at a moment of crude brutalism this inspirational figure represents bravery and self sacrifice.

During the play many of the children’s names are used – along with authentic sayings collected from Korczak’s diaries. The children’s names reminded me of the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust children in Jerusalem and which underlines the humanity and vulnerability which lies behind harrowing but often incomprehensible statistics.

“Confessions of a Butterfly”, for instance, recalls the profoundly moving and poignant story of the boy with the violin – who chooses to become selectively mute after watching the execution of his parents.

Authenticity, vulnerability, fragility and humanity breathes through this one-man play. Salt takes on Korczak’s persona as the play recounts these extraordinary stories.

The drama is set in the hours before Korczak left the orphanage, in August 1942, walking ahead of the children to board the cattle trucks. The children were dressed in their best clothes, each carrying a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy. One eyewitness said

”Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.”

Korczak tells the children that, whatever happens to them on their journey, their destination will be a freedom which no adult will then be able to take from them. Salt’s play has moments of pathos, humour, self deprecation, and discovery.

Jonathan Salt first became interested in the Jewish educator’s story when he heard about it at the Edinburgh Fringe. This led to him playing the part of Korczak in a musical production and then, in 2004, he decided to visit Poland. For him it was a seminal moment as he held Korczak’s original diaries in his hands. A visit to Auschwitz was equally “life changing” and led him to create a small company which gives young people the chance to visit the camps and to learn in great detail the story of the Holocaust.

Salt comes from Cambridgeshire, where he was born in 1964. He studied for seven years at the Canisianum Jesuit seminary in Innsbruck (which was closed by the Nazis during World War Two) and was ordained in the UK in 1990, but left priestly ministry in 1995 – finding a different form of ministry which enables him to use his deep understanding of theology and philosophy to promote a message which the world badly needs to hear.

The contemporary relevance of the life of Janusz Korczak bore down on Salt during a visit to Rwanda where a he met a nine year old boy whose family had been slaughtered by his neighbours during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 when at least 800,000 people were murdered. Crimes against humanity continue in our own times – from the gulags of North Korea to the slaughter in Darfur and South Kordofan.

Despite the horrors with which it deals “Confessions of a Butterfly” has moments of humour, and there are some lovely scenes where he talks to the imaginary children around him, and even becomes a child himself. Using props like cups or apples thrown onto the stage we can imagine the presence of the children who animated Korczak’s life – whom he lived for and gave his life for. Clothes, blankets, and toys are all used to create imaginary conversations with children now long dead but whose spirits are given new life in this sensitive and intimate drama.

At a time when Holocaust deniers try to dispute the veracity or scale of the Shoah – which claimed the lives of six million people – and as we see crimes against humanity visited again on people the world over – from Sudan to north Korea – Salt believes that Korczak’s story is like a wakeup call. When we become indifferent to the Holocaust and the savagery of those times it surely paves the way for those terrible events to occur all over again.

To warn us against this, Jonathan Salt’s play ought to be staged in colleges and communities up and down this country. Korczak’s story is a warning to always guard against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of minorities but it is also a rebuke to nations who leave their children to suffer as victims of war, trafficking, exploitation, abuse, malnutrition, curable diseases and from the deprivation of education. Korczak’s story is a story for our times.

Contact Jonathan Salt at: jonathan@ojemba.com

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Confessions of a Butterfly

Dignitatis Humanae – The case for religious freedom


In Western democracies the contemporary debate about religious freedom often revolves around philosophical differences over the parameters between church and state, and between secular and religious values. By contrast, for millions of others, including many of the world’s Christians, the issue of religious freedom has long been defined by real-world experience of persecution. The 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than the previous 19 centuries combined. For of the world’s six billion inhabitants, more than half live in countries where being a Christian could cost you your life. Contemporaneously, 9/11 and the London bombings of July 2005  threw into sharp relief the ongoing challenge of peaceful co-existence in a religiously plural world. 

Forty years ago, differing perspectives about the how religious belief can persist in a free society were addressed and reconciled by the Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Their seminal document, Dignitatis Humanae, one of whose principal proponents was a young Polish bishop, led to a fundamental change in the Catholic understanding of religious freedom and the role of religion in the world. By insisting on each person’s inalienable right to search for religious and spiritual fulfillment, and by asserting the centrality of the proclamation of human dignity, the Council shaped a coherent and intellectually sustainable approach. It was offered as a touchstone for Christian anthropology and Christian statecraft. In these troubled times it has a prophetic resonance.

Dignitatis Humanae, particularly when read alongside Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope: The Pastoral Constitution on The Church In The Modern World) lights the dark passages of the last four decades. It helps both believers and non-believers to understand the role of the Church in confronting the dictatorships of Marxism, materialism, and fascist military regimes while also criticizing the seemingly advanced democracies for their use of manipulative technologies to promote eugenics and the dehumanizing practices of euthanasia, abortion, human embryo experimentation, and human cloning.

The Council insisted that the dignity of the human person is always to be taken as the primary consideration and the starting point for understanding religious freedom. While Dignitatis Humanae reiterates the duty of the religious believer to search for Truth, it simultaneously articulates the duty to disavow any form of coercion. After three public debates, 126 speeches, and some 600 written interventions, article 2 of Vatican II’s final text on religious freedom asserted that:


This Vatican synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of the individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The Synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the Revealed Word of God, and by reason itself. This right of the person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. Thus it is to become a civil right.[i]


Article 3 adds the recognition of the beneficial role that religion can play in society, insisting that:  

Injury, therefore, is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society when the just requirements of public order do not so require…. Government ought to take account of the religious life of the people and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common good. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power were it to presume to direct or inhibit acts that are religious.[ii]


Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes were part of the Council Fathers’ determination to abandon the quietism that had come to haunt the commentaries of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Such quietism was no longer an option for them: they had learned a great deal from the horrific violence of the first half of the 20th century. They were well aware that the abandonment of Christian quietism would lead to confrontation, but they set out the way in which the religious believer should handle the clash of conflicting beliefs. They prevailed over those who wanted the Church to dilute or entirely abandon both documents (with the Roman Curia not playing a particularly distinguished role).[iii]

Of course, the debate itself was not a new one. The apostles had wrestled with how to interpret Jesus’ Great Commission to go out and spread the gospel and how to render unto Caesar what was properly his while withholding what was not. In Jerusalem, Paul won the argument about whether the gospel was also intended for the gentiles, becoming the first Christian to engage with the world outside the synagogues. That decision created the universalism which is synonymous with the word “catholic”—but it also created the circumstances in which Christians would be thrown to lions, nailed to crosses, and hunted down in subterranean catacombs.

To this day, Roman Catholic liturgies celebrate and remember the sacrifices of those early martyrs: Peter and Paul, Clement, Calixtus, Sebastian, Cecilia, Felicity, Agatha, and the many others. Their refusal to capitulate to the civil authorities in matters of religious belief brought them a martyr’s crown. Tertullian would observe with accuracy that this blood of martyrs would become the seed of the church. Dignitatis Humanae cites the Acts of the Apostles (5:29) that “we must obey God rather than men,” and reminds us that “this is the way along which countless martyrs and other believers have walked through all ages and over all the earth.”[iv]

The Council also set out the terms for religious evangelization. In Chapter 2, Article 10, the declaration states: “It is one of the major tests of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free. Therefore no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.”[v]

This should not just be a test for Catholic evangelization or for Christian missions more broadly. It should also be measured against attempts to forcibly convert to Islam the peoples of countries like Sudan and Nigeria through bombing campaigns, siege, abduction, and enslavement. Over the past two decades, in an attempt to impose shari’a law in Southern Sudan, some two million Christians and Africans of traditional animist religions were killed. Simultaneously, any Muslim freely seeking Christian baptism faces execution, imprisonment, or torture. In other words, although some Vatican II teachings are articulated in specifically Christian terms, the general principles are of wider application—and are urgently needed in our contemporary context of clashing civilizations.



Persecution: The Seed of Vatican II


When, in October 1962, the Council Fathers came together for the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, it was played out against the brutal history of the 20th century. The continuing persecution of the Church (particularly in the Soviet Bloc and the Marxist regimes of the Far East) was reflected in Pope John XIII’s opening speech to the Council where he reflected on the “damage and danger” inflicted by “the princes of this world” on the Church: “We confess to you that we feel most poignant sorrow over the fact that very many bishops, so dear to us, are noticeable here today by their absence, because they are imprisoned for their faithfulness to Christ, or impeded by other restraints.”

As Archbishop Angello Roncalli, John XXIII had personally witnessed the depredations and atrocities committed at the behest of secular ideologies against vulnerable religious minorities. Although Dignitatis Humanae would not be published until December 7th 1965, by which time Paul VI was pope, the Decree on Religious Freedom emerged from Pope John’s experiences and those of a suffering church. It became the Council’s response to the erupting challenges of the time.

In 1925 Roncalli had been appointed as apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, told him, “Everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, the Muslims with the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics with the Latins, and the Latins with each other. Could you go there and find out what is really happening?” During the next decade he did precisely that.

          By mule he visited remote Christian communities who “don’t even have oil to light the lamps in the chicken-coops we use as chapels.” He met with the Greek Catholics and wrote: “As I joined with them in singing their grieving lamentations, which were the echo of centuries of political and religious slavery, I began to feel myself more catholic, more truly universal.”[vi] Roncalli entered into their suffering and their persecution.

His understanding of religious persecution took on a new dimension when in 1927 he met and forged a deep friendship with the octogenarian Archbishop Stepanosse Hovagnimian, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Armenians. Archbishop Hovagnimian had escaped the Turkish massacres of the Armenians in 1896 and survived the genocide of 1915. During his address to the Council’s Observers in October 1962, the then Pope John would refer to how this friendship had stirred deep emotions within him.

If Pope John had been deeply affected by the plight of the ancient churches,[vii] additional profound influences on the shaping of Dignitatis Humanae include his experiences with anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Islam. In 1935 Roncalli had been moved to Istanbul as the Vatican’s representative. Ataturk’s government had imposed tight police restrictions on all Christian activities. Roncalli’s first duty on arriving in what had been Constantinople was to report to the police. Within a month his diocesan newspaper had been suppressed. Then Ataturk enacted laws prohibiting the wearing of religious habits and Christian schools were suppressed. He was of course in an Islamic country that had decided to reject religious Islam and denounce all religious belief as outmoded. In a letter to a friend Roncalli mused that Turkey might follow in the steps of Mexico where priests were being hunted down and shot.

          In his first public address in Istanbul, at the church of the Holy Spirit in whose courtyard stands a statue of Pope Benedict XV (revered in Istanbul for his role in World War One as “protector of the East”), the future Pope gave a foreshadowing of what would form the ecclesiology of Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes. Roncalli said

“Our Lord has built his Church on the foundation of the Apostles, to whom he gave the command to preach the Gospel to everyone. The Church is not bound to this or that nation; but all nations, without distinction, are called to rally to its standard.… Having created it, he sent it forth to win over the world.”[viii]

Here is the genesis of the great impulse of the Second Vatican Council to see the Church as the living people of God, as lumen gentium—a light to the nations. Without this light there could be no true freedom. Even as he was writing these words, in 1935, the world was already becoming darker and sliding into chaos. In Russia, Stalin was murderously crushing all dissent and brutally suppressing the Orthodox Church. In Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini were seeking to impose their secular ideologies and the Jewish people were facing annihilation. 

On the eve of War, and before the death of Pius XI in February 1939, Roncalli had his final meeting with the Pontiff. The Pope told his legate: “I am not afraid for the future of the Church. She only wants to be free. I know well what fate may well await her—sorrow and persecutions: but she will always have the last word, because she embodies the divine promises. But on the other hand, I tremble for the nations.” He contrasted the determined nature of the totalitarian regimes with the weakness and lack of conviction within the democratic nations. 

          Having returned to Istanbul, Roncalli met with a group of fleeing Polish Jews who gave him an account of what the Nazis were doing in Poland. He gave them practical help to aid them on their way to Israel and wrote in his Journal: “The world is poisoned by morbid nationalism, built up on the basis of race and blood, in contradiction with the Gospel. In this matter, which is of burning topical interest, ‘deliver me from the men of blood O Lord’.”[ix] Sworn testimonies of those who saw his subsequent work to help Jewish refugees stated that Roncalli personally “helped 24,000 Jews with clothes, money and documents.” 

          In 1944 he met with Isaac Herzog, the grand rabbi of Jerusalem, and intervened forcibly on behalf of 55,000 Jews in Transnistria. Rabbi Herzog wrote to Roncalli: “The people of Israel will never forget the help brought to its unfortunate brothers and sisters by the Holy See by its highest representative at this the saddest moment of our history.” He responded with a promise to “always be at your service and at the service of all the brothers of Israel.”[x]

Israel celebrates Roncalli’s memory as one of “the righteous Gentiles.” Still, the man himself must surely have meditated on the failure of the Church to prevent the unleashing of the hatred that led to the holocaust. 

          As Roncalli prepared to leave Istanbul, in another part of Europe a recently ordained Polish priest, with a fresh personal experience of the Nazi occupation of Poland, was coming to terms with his own experience of the holocaust and the subjugation of religious belief in a Stalinist communist state. As Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, the future Pope John Paul II, specifically urged the Council to include within the Declaration the belief that human dignity involves a “moral obligation to see the truth, especially religious truth.” He argued strongly that freedom must be used as a force for good, not as a libertarian option for selfish gratification.

He insisted that real freedom was inextricably bound up with the search for truth. Freedom is not about taking a neutral fence-sitting position where meaningless rhetoric about personal choice eclipses the idea of absolute truth. Wojtyla was never going to live in a spiritual Switzerland. With the English Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, he shared the belief that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.”[xi]

As Pope John Paul II he said:


It is clear that the issue of human freedom is fundamental. Freedom is properly so called to the extent that it implements the truth regarding good. Only then does it become a good in itself. If freedom ceases to be linked with truth and begins to make truth dependent on freedom, it sets the premises for dangerous moral consequences, which can assume incalculable dimensions. When this happens, the abuse of freedom provokes a reaction which takes the form of one totalitarian system or another. This is another form of the corruption of freedom, the consequences of which we have experienced in the twentieth century and beyond.[xii]


Prophetically, he asserted in Fides et Ratio that, “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” He passionately argued that much that passes for freedom has been constructed over the edifice of a lie.

Wojtyla’s experiences in Poland meant that when, in 1978, he succeeded to the See of Peter he came as a true son of the Council, deeply imbued by his belief in human dignity—the sacredness of man because man is made in the image and likeness of God, the Imago Dei—and in a “personalism” that always puts the upholding of human dignity as the starting point. How could it be otherwise, coming, as he put it, “from the country, on whose living body Auschwitz was constructed?”

In Witness to Hope, George Weigel records an address which Wojtyla gave to the Council in 1965 and says he “concluded with his personalist principle in its most condensed form—the closer human beings come to God, the closer they come to the depth of their humanity and to the truth of the world. Christian faith is not alienating; Christian faith is liberating in the most profound sense of human freedom. That was what the Church should propose to the modern world.”[xiii]

His first-hand Polish experiences and the philosophy that shaped Dignitatis Humanae gave John Paul a mandate which he used powerfully. We see it played out in the founding of Solidarity, in the confrontation with the Soviet bloc, in his denunciation of military dictatorships, and in constant exhortation to see the resolution of conflict.



The Post-Vatican II Catholic Response to Religious Persecution


          As we review, 40 years later, the experiences and thinking that led to the proclamation of Dignitatis Humanae, it is clear that this document speaks forcefully to our own times. It is the single conciliar document that is addressed to the whole world—believer and non-believer alike. It speaks volubly to contemporary totalitarian regimes in countries like China and North Korea and to radical Islamist states such as The Republic of Sudan. It reminds the secularist that God wants no compulsory conversion and that no government has the right to suppress the freedom of religious profession and practice.

We must also ask, however, whether the Church’s doctrinal embrace of religious freedom has translated into practical action over the last four decades. Has the orthodoxy of religious freedom been matched with an orthopraxy of solidarity with, and action for, the persecuted?

In my view, the record is mixed—but, on the whole, still encouraging. On the one hand, since 1965 there have been instances where the Church has failed, through the inaction or errors of individuals or collective failure by the institution. Consider, for instance, the recent record of the Roman Catholic Church in Africa. In Rwanda I visited some of the prisons and met Hutu genocidaires who participated in the genocide of one million Tutsis. Of course, there were notable examples of individual Christians who refused to collaborate, and these are detailed by Antoine Rutayisire of African Enterprise in his book Faith under Fire. But Rutayisire also told me that “the position of the church is very complex: it has taken many different positions and reconciliation is not a popular concept. It often sits on the fence.”

During the genocide individual pastors, priests, and Christian leaders either collaborated in the killing or failed to speak out prophetically against the slaughter. The Church was party to a long process of over-identification with particular ethnic groups and failed to actively seek equal freedom for all. Moreover, it failed to inform individual believers and parishes of the duties that go with Christian citizenship. 

On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church’s role in other African contexts has been far more in keeping with the principles of universal human dignity proclaimed at Vatican II. For instance, the bravery and prophetic quality of the Church in Sudan is quite striking. Cardinal Garbriel Zubeir Wako, Archbishop of Sudan (who is often simply known as “Father Courage”) has called for “a new Sudan—the kind of Sudan in which violence, injustice, discrimination find no place, because people’s hearts and minds have been filled with all the that brings and holds them together.”[xiv] Cardinal Wako and his people have seen huge loss of life and endured great suffering, but through it all have been a force for compassion and healing. Likewise, the Catholic role in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where up to 3.7 million have died in the past decade, has been praiseworthy.

More broadly, the positive legacy of Vatican II for the Roman Catholic Church’s engagement of religious freedom can be seen in its rejection of simplistic quietism in the face of today’s two most prominent sources of persecution: authoritarian communism and jihadist Islam. While the Church still exercises nuanced diplomacy and is not ignorant of complex geopolitical realities, the sound philosophy of Dignitatis Humanae has stiffened the resolve of the Church when it comes to its response to gross violations of human rights.

The nature of this response will, of course, vary depending on the context. In China, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI continues to make strenuous efforts to heal the breach between the Vatican and the Communist authorities. About  five million Catholics belong to the Government-controlled “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.”

Millions more belong to underground churches and their bishops, priests, and believers regularly endure detention, imprisonment, beatings, and torture. In addition, many Catholic families have particularly suffered as part of the Government’s coercive one-child policy—with lack of compliance resulting in forced abortions and sterilization. While in some countries the voice of the Church on behalf of these victims is somewhat muted (e.g., in my own country of Britain), in others it is strong in defence of human dignity (e.g., in the U.S.).

In the case of militant Islam, the Roman Catholic Church’s response has largely been one of “calling a spade a spade.” That is, it has shown greater resistance than most to today’s culture of “political correctness” when it comes to candid truth-telling about the present condition of the Islamic world—and the profound implications for human rights of Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Based on a profound understanding of human dignity, it is essential to affirm the goodness of many fine Muslims but also to criticize those things which are being done by radicals in the name of Islam. For the sake of the persecuted, we must take the long view. For those radical Muslims who adhere to the precept of the holy war, the military advance of Islam was merely halted at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and at Vienna (1683). Jihad has now manifested itself in a modern form and is adhered to by adherents of Al Quaeda, Hamas, Laskar Jihad and other radical groups.

The Roman Catholic Church shares in the sufferings that jihadism inflicts on so many. The abuses range from outright murder, such as the slaying of the Bishop of Orano in Algeria in 1996, to persecution-by-law, such as the existence and capricious use of Blasphemy Laws in many Muslim contexts to suppress and intimidate.

Although “diplomatic considerations” will always have to be taken into account, neither silence nor special pleading only on behalf of one’s own religious tradition is justified in the face of global persecution. The Roman Catholic Church understands this imperative more clearly as a result of Vatican II teachings. The fear that speaking out might “make a bad situation worse” was the argument erroneously deployed by the European quietist tendency of the 1930s—the Council Fathers, and John Paul II, knew the error of that approach.





       By rooting religious freedom in the dignity of the human person, the claim for religious freedom becomes a universal one securing the freedom of all people of conscience—Christian or not—to embrace the religious belief of their choice. In turn, the elevation of religious freedom brings great bounty to society in the working out of charitable endeavor and the deepening of the common good. And perhaps—in the context of the challenges to which I have referred—this denotes the greatest benefit and reason why all governments should be seized by the importance of promoting freedom of religious belief.

          The first of the two chapters of Dignitatis Humanae ends with this telling admonition to the lawful authorities:

Let them form men who will be lovers of true freedom—men who will come to decisions through their own judgment and who, in the light of truth, will govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in co-operative effort. Religious freedom, therefore, ought to have this further purpose and aim, namely that men may come to act with greater responsibility in fulfilling their duties in community life.

 A society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one which doesn’t will decay.





[i] “The Documents of Vatican II”, page 678, Geoffrey Chapman, London 1967 (ital)). 

[ii] (ibid, page 681 ((ital)).

[iii] Perhaps the proximity of the tomb of Peter, a recollection of the circumstances of the role of the State in his death in 64 AD, and a recollection of the apostle’s response to the Quo Vadis question put to him in a vision by the Lord, as he tried to walk along the Via Apia away from Rome, gave them the courage to address the central question of their own time.

[iv] (Article 11, ibid (ital)).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Hebblethwaite, Peter and Geoffrey Chapman, John XXIII, Pope of The Council (London, 1984).

[vii] Today the remaining Armenian Christians in Turkey continue to experience hardship, while all over the Middle East the ancient churches—from the Copts of Egypt to the Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics—are embattled and beleaguered remnants whose plight is too frequently overlooked. Elsewhere I have documented graphic examples, such as the massacre of 21 Coptic Christians in the Egyptian town of Al-Kosheh. Many were literally hacked to death. Two hundred sixty Christian homes and businesses were gutted and looted. The authorities brought no one to justice. See “Passion and Pain,” Jubilee Campaign  2003.

[viii] Hebblethwaite and Chapman, John XXIII.

[ix] Journal of A Soul: Pope John XXIII

[x] Hebblethwaite and Chapman, John XXIII.

[xi] Orthodoxy 1906.

[xii] Memory and Identity, Wiedenfeld, 2005.

[xiii] (Harper Collins, 1999)

[xiv] “Roll Back the Stone of Fear” Aid To the Church In Need, 2005.