Archive for the ‘Freedom of religion’ Category

Freedom of conscience and the City of Brotherly Love

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

William Penn, Newcastle, Delaware

William Penn, Newcastle, Delaware

As the World Day for Cultural Diversity is being celebrated today on 21 May, it seems fitting to remember the vision of William Penn for an inclusive society, a place where various religious groups would live together in peace and harmony.

William Penn was born in England on 14 October 1644, the son of William Penn, an English captain in the Navy and Margaret Jasper, herself the daughter of a rich Dutch merchant from Rotterdam. When William was born, his twenty-three year old father was blockading Irish ports as part of the effort to quell Irish Catholic unrest. The captain was rewarded for his role in the English Civil War with lands in Ireland that had been confiscated from Irish Catholics following the massacre of Protestants. Those were turbulous times: Oliver Cromwell had led a successful Puritan revolution against Charles I, resulting in the King being beheaded in 1649.

Penn spent his youth between England and Ireland where his father was exiled for a while after a failed mission to the Caribbean. It is there that, at fifteen, young William first heard Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary. The talk Loe gave made a lasting impression on the young man who had become interested in religious issues. Quakers belonged in a Protestant sect founded in 1647 by George Fox, and believed in a direct relationship with God. Morals for them were guided by an individual’s conscience, and not by the Bible.

Following Oliver Cromwell’s death, the Puritan Revolution came to an end and William Penn’s father, who since had been promoted to the rank of Admiral, was instrumental in bringing Charles II back to the throne. As a result, Admiral Penn was knighted and became Commissioner of the Navy.

Meanwhile, William Penn was sent to study at Oxford, where students came from various religious background, including aristocratic Protestants, austere Puritans and non-conformist Quakers. Among the faculty were free-thinkers: one of them, a dean was eventually fired. Young William, along with a number of students decided to stand by the dean, resulting in their being fined and reprimanded. Following this incident, stricter religious practices were imposed by the administration: Penn rebelled against imposed chapel attendance worship and was expelled. His parents then decided to expose him to a different culture and sent him to France where he studied in Saumur for one year with Moise Amyrault at l’Academie Protestante, the most respected Protestant university in the country. There Penn learned about religious toleration.

William Penn

William Penn

Upon his return to England, Penn studied law and then served as his father’s personal assistant, a position which allowed him to gain access to king Charles II and his brother the Duke of York. In the gloomy aftermath of the Great Plague, and the Great Fire in London, Penn elected to settle for a while in the Irish family estate. At a time when restrictions against all religious groups other than Anglican were being severely tightened, Penn started to attend Quaker meetings.

In 1667, Penn was arrested at one of these meetings. Upon his insisting that he was a Quaker, and demanding to be treated as such, he was sent to jail. It is in prison that he first wrote about freedom of conscience. Because of his father’s position, he was eventually released and returned to England. Admiral Penn tried to reason with his son to no avail; giving up, he decided to disown his son who eventually found shelter with Quaker families. It is during that period, that he met his first wife, Gulielma Springett, whom he finally married in 1672, and that he became friends with Georges Fox, with whom he traveled around Europe. Fox had founded the Quaker movement during the more tolerant years of the Puritan revolution. The movement had no written doctrine, Penn became its first theorist.

His writings led him to the Tower of London where he was imprisoned for eight months. While in prison, he wrote one of his most famous pamphlets: No Cross, No Crown. Remorseless, once free, Penn continued his religious activities. In 1670, in an attempt to test the new law against assembly, Penn convoked a public meeting during which he started preaching. He was arrested. At the trial, contrary to the law in effect at the time, he was denied the right to hear the charges against him, and the jury was asked to give their verdict without hearing the defence. In spite of this, jurors found him not guilty and refused to change their verdict. Although the judge sentenced them to jail, they still refused to change their verdict. The jurors spent more than two months in prison, and fought for their right from jail. They won, an outcome that led thereon to the recognition of the right for English juries to not be coerced or punished for their verdict.

Following his release from prison, Penn traveled to Germany and the Netherlands to study the living conditions of Quakers in these countries. What impressed him the most what the freedom he observed in the Netherlands, which had become a land of asylum for persecuted Jews and Protestants from various parts of Europe. The peaceful coexistence of various religious there inspired him to develop a vision of a community based on liberty.

Back in England, Penn tried to introduce the concept of religious toleration, with the support of the King, but failed with the Parliament. At this point, he realized that such a project could only be achieved outside of England. A mass immigration of Quakers was planned, and a group of them, including Penn, purchased a land in North America: West Jersey.

Trying to expand the Quaker region, Penn decided to go to the King and ask for a charter that would establish an American colony. The King and his brother were indebted to Admiral Penn, who, before his death had asked for their protection of young Penn. The charter was granted and Penn was given a territory located South of West Jersey and North of Maryland, making him the largest land owner after the King. Penn suggested it be called Sylvania, it was the King who suggested Pennsylvania, adding Penn’s name in honour of the deceased Admiral. In return, one fifth of the gold and silver that would be mined in the province, along with two beaver skins would have to go to the King at the beginning of each year.

Penn and the Charter of Liberties

Penn and the Charter of Liberties

The charter was signed on March 4, 1681. While still in England, in early 1682, Penn started working on his charter of liberties for the territory, the First Frame of Government for the Province of Pennsylvania. Most importantly, the document guaranteed freedom of worship to all inhabitants. Religious toleration was foremost, but another set of rights was also granted which reflected Penn’s early experiences. Freedom of the press, as well as the right to a fair trial by jury, and free elections along with more generally the rights of Englishmen were recognized by the Frame of Government for “all the freemen, planters and adventurers of, in and to the province” of Pennsylvania.

Penn sailed to America and landed in Newcastle on 27 October 1682.

Penn landed in Newcastle, Delaware

Penn landed in Newcastle, Delaware

In spite of having been given the territory through a royal charter, Penn decided that he would purchase the land from the Lenape Indians, and after some negotiations, a price of 1,200 pounds was agreed upon.

Penn's Treaty with the Lenape Indians

Penn's Treaty

With friends, he set to establish a city between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers, naming it Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Penn also chose the names of the major streets, such as Spruce, Chestnut, Broad and Pine. Meanwhile, he had invited Quakers to join his community: some 250 settlers responded. He later advertised his land of religious freedom all over Europe, and representatives from persecuted minorities arrived: Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews coming from England, France, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and Wales.

The First Frame of Government was revised, and twenty drafts were issued. One of the great innovative ideas Penn came up with was the introduction of amendments that would allow to respond to changing times and circumstances and enable social changes without violent uprisings or revolutions.

In 1684, Penn returned to England to see his family. Conditions had changed there with a new absolutism modeled after the French monarchy. Books were being burnt, quakers were being sent to jail. Penn was able to help save a number of them, including George Fox himself. Meanwhile, in the colonies, his business manager, Philip Ford, was proving unworthy of the confidence entrusted in him. Ford cheated his employer by having Penn sign a deed transferring Pennsylvania to his business manager.

Much of Penn’s later years were marked by his fight to recover from this deed transfer. He returned to America in 1699 where he stayed until 1701 with his new wife, whom he had married in 1696 two years after Gulielma’s death. Back in England, having lost most of his money, he was sued by Ford’s widow who, in 1702, had Penn imprisoned for debt. Fellow Quakers collected money to get him released, and in 1708, a ruling allowed Penn to regain Pennsylvania, for himself and his heirs. Four years later, he suffered a stroke and died penniless soon thereafter.

William Penn, Philadelphia

William Penn, Philadelphia

In spite of his later years troubles, Penn’s legacy is one of a man who fought for his convictions, defended freedom of religion and developed a model for a free society where people of different ethnic background and religion could live in peace. His Frame of Government inspired Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence.

“Any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion.”


Sunday, November 28th, 2010

12 October 1492, painting by Brugada, Naval Museum, Madrid

On 12 October 1492, when land is sighted from the Pinta, one of the three ships in the expedition led by Christopher Colombus on behalf of the Spanish Crown, the “new world” is “discovered”.

With this momentous event, the year 1492 is usually celebrated as a landmark year in history. It must be remembered however for other developments which also happened in Spain and the consequences of which still resonate in today’s world.

Alhambra - Puerta de la Justicia

Alhambra - Puerta de la Justicia

On 2 January 1492, Granada, the last Muslim city left in Spain, surrenders to the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando. Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon lead a royal procession into the Alhambra, thus completing the reconquista, a period of almost 700 years during which Christian kings reconquered the Iberian peninsula from Islamic rule. Immediately, crosses and other Catholic symbols are placed in various part of the site, signalling a drastic change of religious obedience.

Between 25 November and 30 December 1491, Isabel and Fernando, had discussed, signed and ratified the Treaty of Granada with Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada (known in Spanish as Boabdil). In addition to recognizing the sovereignty of the Catholic monarchs over Granada, the treaty, also known as the Capitulation of Granada, granted rights to the Moors as well as Jews, most importantly, the right to practice their faith.

Alhambra - Lion Courtyard

Alhambra - Lion Courtyard

Que sus altezas y sus sucesores para siempre jamás dejarán vivir al rey Abí Abdilehi y á sus alcaides, cadís, meftís, alguaciles, caudillos y hombres buenos y á todo el comun, chicos y grandes, en su ley, y no les consentirán quitar sus mezquitas ni sus torres ni los almuedanes, ni les tocarán en los habices y rentas que tienen para ellas, ni les perturbarán los usos y costumbres en que están.

Less than three months later, on 31 March 1492, the Alhambra Decree is issued which reverses the rights awarded in the Treaty of Granada and gives Jews and Muslims four months to convert to catholicism or leave Spain. According to the Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, anyone remaining after 31 July who would not have converted would be killed.

Many Jews - with numbers varying between 130,000 and 800,000 - left Spain: about half went to Portugal, while others moved to North Africa and South-Eastern Europe. The Decree allowed them to take their belongings, but no gold, silver, or minted money. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Spanish Jews chose to remain and convert to Christianity.

The move to conversion had started a century before, as the only way to escape death following the 1391 pogroms that took place in Sevilla, but also in Valencia, and Barcelona. Converted Jews, known as conversos, over the years attained important positions such as physicians, bankers, and senior posts in the Catholic Church.

Calle de la Juderia Vieja, Segovia

Calle de la Juderia Vieja, Segovia

A Dominican friar from Seville convinced Queen Isabel that there were some crypto-jews among the conversos; those were called marranos. The Catholic monarchs turned to the Pope and asked for his assent for the creation of a tribunal called Inquisition to be created, that would be controlled by the Spanish Crown, the main object of which being to deal with the conversos. A papal bull was published in November 1478, and on 6 February 1481 the first auto de fe (act of faith) took place in Seville, with six people burned at the stake.

Queen Isabel’s confessor, the Archbishop of Granada Hernando de Talavera, is said to have been a converso. It is the same Talavera who first introduced Columbus to the Queen, and who was appointed to head a commission whose mandate was to make a recommendation on the validity of Colombus’ proposals. The Commission sat for a few years, but eventually Colombus was granted the authorization to go ahead with his project to discover a new route to India traveling West. Talavera was later accused of having a synagogue in his palace to be finally acquitted by the Inquisition; he died soon thereafter.

Two of Columbus’ most supportive patrons, who not only helped get the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel’s approval but also finance the expedition, were also conversos, Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez. Following the success of the mission, the two patrons received identical letters from Colombus announcing his discoveries, and it is Santangel who brought the news to the Catholic sovereigns.

Bringing the President to the people

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

An enclosed yard in the vicinity of the Peekskill train station protects the historical spot where President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a whistle-stop on February 19, 1861.

A statue represents Lincoln as he addressed the crowd that came to meet him that day, when he stopped in Peekskill, en route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C.

Contemporary accounts of the event describe a very tall, neatly dressed and tired man as Lincoln stepped from the rear car onto the platform prepared to receive him.

He looked jaded, fatigued, as if just aroused from a nap, but when he commenced speaking, his whole countenance lighted up.

More than 1,500 people greeted him, representing half of the town’s population. The welcoming address was delivered by Peekskill attorney William Nelson, who had invited the President-elect to stop in the Westchester town. Nelson had served in the House of Representatives and had become friends with the Representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. They shared political views, in particular anti-slavery convictions.

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, Westchester

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, NY

In response to Nelson’s address, which mentioned the difficulties ahead for the President-elect, Lincoln gave a short speech, no longer than 140 words, and stated:

I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail.

The train conductor concluded Lincoln’s brief statementt with a Time’s up! shout. And off the train moved with a bowing President-elect, hat in hand.

The whole event cannot have lasted more than 30 minutes, the time it took to refill the water tanks and load up on wood.

Stops had to be short: an abolitionist President was not welcome by the secessionists and a number of Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union. Assassination attempts were a distinct possibility and all necessary security measures had been taken. Lincoln is said to have had to sneak through Baltimore at night, while his wife who was following in a separate train was met there by an outright hostile crowd.

It was just over eleven years before the event that the Hudson River Railroad had arrived in Peekskill, in September 1849. By using this new mode of transportation while at the same time meeting his constituency, Lincoln inaugurated what for years has been a staple of any American electoral campaign. To honour a predecessor he admired, President-elect Obama followed in Lincoln’s track by taking a pre-inaugural whistle-stop train trip from Chicago to Washington D.C. in January 2009.

For centuries, trying to bring leaders closer to their constituency has been a concern. There was a time when once a year - if not once in a decade - elaborate ceremonies during which a country leader would make an appearance in full regalia would suffice to keep the people satisfied. His very presence attested to the physical reality of his existence, however distant the leader may have been from the crowds.

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, Rome

Formal processions, from Cleopatra’s slave-pulled floats to Queen Elizabeth’s annual progresses would ensure the people would get a glimpse of their sovereign, thereby contributing to ensure continued devotion to their ruler. There seemed to have been no fear for that leader’s security.

The tangibility of the ruler’s physical presence was reassuring and the security risk limited. On a more regular basis, minted coins bearing the leader’s head - such as the gold English sovereign, first issued in 1489 for Henry VII of England - would popularize the image of the sovereign, and help in asserting his power. Imposing, larger than life, representations of the leader, such as equestrian statues, would also be placed on cities main squares as a  reminder of the might of this leader. Marcus Aurelius, Louis XIV or Peter the Great’s equestrian statues are famous examples of these monumental images.

It is said that, during the famous flight to Varennes when Louis XVI of France tried to escape from Paris with his family, disguised as servants, he was recognized because his face appeared on money. Some stories mention the revolutionary banknotes, assignats, while others evoke gold coins.

The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have resorted to similar oversize representations of their leaders, from fascist Italy to Nazi Germany, to communist Russia and China. Equally important was the actual participation of the leader in elaborate ceremonies where he could be recognized as a small spot in the distance. Trust played an important part in these ceremonies as the leader’s presence was an essential element of the well-oiled propaganda machinery. Charles Chaplin has played with this in the movie The Dictator where a Jewish barber, a look alike of the totalitarian leader of the country, takes the dictator’s place and sends his own, and different, message of hope to a cheering crowd. The mesmerized crowd is no longer able to think and will cheer any speech, regardless of the message.

Beyond trying to limit the time during which a leader would be exposed, as was the case for Lincoln’s train trip, ensuring security of the leader in public appearances has become a major issue in a world now only too accustomed to political assassinations. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a number of world leaders falling victims of assassins as their views or programmes were controversial.

Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated, only four years following his Peekskill visit. In April 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy, jumped into the state box at the Ford Theater and killed the President.

Other American historical leaders have perished victims of their political opponents. Two Kennedy brothers were assassinated in the 1960’s. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed first, and died in his third year in office, in November 1963, while being driven in an open car procession, in Dallas, Texas. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while running for President, in June 1968, as he took a short-cut through a hotel kitchen. Following his death, all US Presidential candidates have been assigned Secret Service protection.

A little bit earlier that year, in March 1968, Civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King was also assassinated. During a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking workers, he was shot while standing on the balcony of his motel room.

Other famous 20th century leaders were assassinated by political opponents during public appearances. On 30 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist as he was walking to address a prayer meeting.

In an ever increasing escalation of violence, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was killed during a political rally in 2007. After she was shot, a suicide bomb detonated, killing Bhutto and an estimated 23 other people.

Before the 19th century, rarer have been historical assassinations that targeted country rulers. Two famous ones however took place during the religious wars at a time when the Reformation was dividing Europe.

Willem of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, a defender of religious freedom, perished a victim of a French Roman Catholic fanatic. Born a Lutheran, and educated as a Roman Catholic, in July 1584, Willem was assassinated by Balthasar Gerard in his Delft home, in the Prinsenhof.

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Gerard had gained access to the house under false pretense, and killed Willem with two bullets at close range.

A contemporary of Willem, Henry IV of France, the Protestant king who converted to Catholicism, had signed the Edict of Nantes that recognized freedom of religion in the kingdom of France, and the co-existence of two religions. The Edict brought an end to decades of religious wars. On May 14, 1610, he too was assassinated by French Roman Catholic fanatic Ravaillac as he was passing in his carriage through Rue de la Ferronerie.

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th were also marked by a number of political assassinations. Reformer Russian Czar Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot, on March 13, 1881, marking the end of civil liberties and the reform effort.

On September 10, 1898, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria was stabbed and killed by anarchist Luigi Lucheni, who wanted to kill a royal. Elisabeth was walking on the promenade next to Lake Geneva, and was about to board a steamship to Montreux.

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo, were shot dead as they were riding side by side in an open car. The double assassination led to World War I, one month later.

Twice condemned for not believing in the Trinity

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Geneva Servetus memorial

On a quiet spot on the outskirts of Geneva, just above the neighbouring bustle of the hospital, stands a memorial, between Beausejour and Roseraie. The Roseraie inscription says “On 27 October 1553, Michel Servet de Villeneuve d’Aragon died on the stake” while the Beausejour side reads: ”We, respectful and grateful children of Calvin, our great reformer but condeming an error that was that of his century, and deeply attached to freedom of conscience… built this expiatory monument, on 27 October 1903.”

The infrequent passer-by is unlikely to pay too much notice. It is only for those who know about Servetus that this atonement memorial may mean something. A near-by street also honours him, the sign reads: Michel Servet (1511-1553, Spanish physician).

Quite by chance, I had discovered the memorial a few years ago, while a Geneva resident. Sufficiently intrigued by the double reference to Calvin and to freedom of conscience, I had researched the fate of the Spaniard. 

This time around, on a visit to Geneva, I was deliberately looking for the memorial, the location of which I only vaguely remembered. I ended up having a bit of a hard time finding it. Assuming Rue Michel Servet would be a logical spot, I walked up and down the street, explored the Plateau de Champel, as Champel is generally indicated as the place where Servetus was burnt at the stake, along with his books. No mention of the execution was to be found on the Plateau.

Rue Michel Servet, Geneva

Rue Michel Servet, Geneva

From there I walked again along the Michel Servet street which winds it way down from the Plateau to the Geneva hospital.

After a little more exploring and walking back and forth, on a side street, I finally spotted the memorial, inaugurated on the 350th anniversary of the Spaniard’s death.

Servetus’ execution marked the end of a long theological dispute between him and Calvin, at a time when autodafes, and the burning of heretics, were the order of the day throughout Europe.

The Spanish physician was the first to describe and publish about pulmonary circulation. A true humanist, in addition to his medical pursuits, Servetus’ studies and research ranged from astrology, geography, jurisprudence to theology.

Born in Villanueva, Aragon, the son of a Catholic notary and a mother whose Jewish ancestors were conversos, Miguel Serveto early on studied Greek, Hebrew and Latin and later went to the University of Toulouse to study law.

After having worked in the service of a Franciscan monk, Quintana, who became Charles V’s confessor, Servetus joined the Protestant reformers in Basel, then moved to Strasbourg. There, by the time he was twenty, he published De trinitatis erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity), which was followed by two more essays in which Servetus, based on his direct readings of the Bible, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus also thought that the Trinity dogma made it more difficult to Jews and Moors to convert Christianism.

The books were confiscated. The Spanish Inquisition ordered that he be questioned while warnings were issued against him in several Protestant towns. Servetus fled to Paris where he entered medical school under the name of Michel de Villeneuve. There he met Jean Calvin, a fellow student. Both started engaging in long theological debates, which continued through correspondence after Calvin had to flee Paris, as he was suspected of promoting reformist ideas.

When Michel de Villeneuve was given the position of physician to Archbishop of Vienne Pierre Palmier, he settled in the French city, south of Lyons. While he practised medicine, he also continued his theological research and wrote his major work: Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity). Servetus sent the book to Calvin who responded by sending a copy of his own book: Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutions of the Christian Religion), which Servetus returned covered with annotations. After a few more exchanges, Calvin stopped the correspondence.

Meanwhile, in Vienne, Michel de Villeneuve was suspected of being the author of the Restitutio and denounced as a heretic. Once his correspondence with Calvin had been produced as evidence, he was soon identified as Servetus. He was arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities in April 1553, and escaped from prison three days following his arrest. On 17 June, the French Inquisition convicted him of heresy and he was sentenced to death by slow burning. The same day, in Vienne, his effigy and his books were burned in abstentia. 

Calvin and the Reformers, Parc des Bastions, Geneva

Calvin, Farel and the Reformers, Parc des Bastions, Geneva

While fleeing to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva where he was soon recognized and arrested. Following a consultation with four other Swiss cities, the Protestant authorities condemned him: there too he was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Calvin unsuccessfully tried to convince fellow Reformer Farel that the sentence should be executed through decapitation. On 27 October 1553, Servetus perished in the flames, his books attached to his body by a chain.

While many Protestants approved of the execution, some in Basel and other parts spoke against the decision to put heretics to death. The most vocal of them was theologian Sébastien Castellion who in 1562 said: Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man.

Miguel Serveto’s legacy has become emblematic of the fight for freedom of thought and freedom of conscience.

It is only at the very beginning of the 20th century that monuments were raised to commemorate Servetus. The Champel memorial was inaugurated in 1903 in the presence of representatives from France. The Geneva memorial being deemed insufficient by the Comite du monument Michel Servet, in 1908, a statue was commissioned, but the Geneva authorities did not authorize its installation. It was then decided to donate the statue to the town of Annemasse, in France, just on the other side of the border.

Thanks to an international fund-raising effort, another monument was inaugurated in 1911 in Vienne. An October 22, 1911 New York Times article describes how Americans and “delegates from every civilized country of the globe” attended the inauguration of yet another statue to commemorate the victim of intolerance.

Servetus’ story continues as, at the request of the Vichy Government, the Annemasse monument was destroyed in 1941. The French resistance later organized a wreath-laying ceremony dedicated to Michel Servet, the first victim of fascism. The monument was finally re-erected in 1960.  On the pedestal, an inscription reads:

“The arrest of Servetus in Geneva, where he did neither publish nor dogmatize, hence he was not subject to its laws, has to be considered as a barbaric act and an insult to the Right of Nations”. Voltaire

In Geneva, the 2009 official commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth did not mention Servetus…

A book chest to Paris

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Probably best known today in the Netherlands for his escape from Loevenstein Castle, Hugo Grotius has gained international recognition as one of the fathers of international law, along with a Spaniard, Francisco de Vitoria.

Grotius in front of Neuwe Kirke, Delft
Grotius in front of Nieuwe Kerk, Delft

Hugo de Groot, born in Delft in 1583, entered University at age 11, and by the age of 14 had already published his first book. At 15, he accompanied a leading politician to Paris, where he was hailed by King Henry IV of France as “the miracle of Holland.”

In 1609, he laid the principle of the sea as international territory, which all nations were free to use to support their trade activities.

Shortly after that, Grotius got involved in a theological dispute between orthodox Calvinists and Reformers, and claimed that Calvinist beliefs could have political and religious dangers to Protestantism. For Grotius, while recognition by the State that the existence of God was essential to maintain civil order, personal beliefs regarding theological doctrines should be left to each indidivual to determine.

The dispute resulted in an outburst of hostilities, with the ensuing raising of troops and intervention of the stadtholder, Maurice of Nassau, Prince van Oranje, who staged a coup, overthrowing the States General of which Grotius was a member. Grotius was sentenced to life imprisonment in Loevenstein Castle, in 1618.

Three years later, Grotius managed to escape from the castle. His wife, Maria van Reigersbergen, had sent a trunk which had to be removed on the pretence that it was filled with books. Hidden in the chest, Grotius was able to get out, undiscovered, and take refuge in Antwerp and from there flee to Paris.

His first book published in Paris, in 1625, was to be his most famous work: On the Law of War and Peace. Started while he was in prison, the book sets a system of principles of natural law, the “just war” is defined as a war to obtain a right.

Hugo Grotius, Delft

Hugo Grotius, Delft

Also started while he was in prison, On the Truth of the Christian Religion defends Christian belief: a huge success, this work was used for almost two centuries to support missionary work.

Following Maurice van Oranje’s death, Grotius tried to be allowed back in the Netherlands. For a while, in 1631, he practiced law in Amsterdam, but was soon forced to flee his country again in April 1632 for Hamburg. From there, he was invited to serve as Swedish Ambassador to France. During this time, he returned to his project of Christian unity, harmonizing the various Protestant factions and the Protestants with the Catholics.

He was recalled by Queen Christine of Sweden from his ambassadorial position in March 1645. On the way back to Sweden, the ship wrecked and Grotius barely escaped with his life. After a few months in Sweden, Grotius left for Hamburg and following a long crossing, weak and ill, he died in Rostock, Germany, in August 1645. 

His body was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, the city where he was born.

Of appeals and oranges,… and the birth of a nation

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

As in William of Orange.

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

At the time when the Low Countries were under Spanish rule, Willem, Prins Van Oranje (pronounce oran’-yeah) led the fight against the occupier, in the name of religious freedom.

Born in 1533 in Nassau, Willem was raised a Lutheran. When his cousin René de Châlon, Prince of Orange, left the eleven year old Willem all of his property - including the title Prince of Orange - the condition was that Willem receive a Roman Catholic education. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was to serve as regent until Willem was old enough to rule. At 22, Willem became commander of the Emperor’s armies. The same year, 1555, the Emperor abdicated and his son, Philip II of Spain came to power.

Increasingly, Protestants in the Netherlands were persecuted under the inquisition policy carried out by representatives of the Spanish crown, acting in the name of the devout Catholic king. The persecution led to growing opposition to Spanish rule.

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

A large group of noblemen formed the Confederacy of Noblemen and on 5 April 1565, appealed to Margaret of Austria - Philip’s natural half sister and governor to the Low Countries - for the end to the persecution of the Protestants by presenting a petition. In 1566, the Beeldenstorm - an iconoclastic movement - destroyed statues and representations of saints in churches and monasteries all over the Netherlands.

Margaret of Austria agreed to grant the wishes presented in the petition but was not allowed to make good on her promises and Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, was sent from Spain to repress the rebellion.

Having been brought up both as a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic, Willem was a strong believer in religious freedom. He soon became the leader of an armed resistance to the Spanish repression.

In 1568, war started and many battles - including naval encounters - were fought and won by both sides, until 1581, when on 22 July, through the Act of Abjuration, independence from the Spanish Crown was declared, and a new nation was born, built on the ideal of freedom of religion.

This allowed the Duke of Anjou, brother to King Henry III of France to become the new sovereign. He arrived in February 1582, but quickly became quite unpopular. Dissatisfied with the limited power he was given, he left the country in 1583, and Willem remained the stadtholder.

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

In 1580, King Philip II of Spain had declared Willem an outlaw and promised a reward of 25,000 to anyone who would kill Willem. Balthasar Gerard, a French Catholic, determined in 1581 he would try. He finally succeeded on 10 July 1584, killing Willem with two bullets shot at close range. The bullets impact can still be seen in Delft, in the Prinsenhof, the St. Agatha convent which had become the Prince’s residence since 1573.

Willem’s private life reflects the reality of 16th Century Europe where alliances were built across borders, and the choice of a religion could become a question of life and death. Born a Lutheran in then Germany, he inherited a title from a French relative, on the condition that he would convert to Catholicism.  In the fight against Spain Willem had tried to enroll the support of the French Huguenots to protect territories in the Low Countries, but the Saint Bartholomew massacre of 24 August 1572 resulted in most of the French Huguenot leaders being killed. 

Willem married four times. His first wife, the wealthy Dutch Anna van Egmond en Buren, gave him the title of Lord of Egmond and Count of Buren and three children. Three years after her death, Willem married the equally wealthy Anna of Saxony, which allowed him to increase his influence in the Saxony and Palatinate territories. After having five children with Willem, Anna started a liaison with her lawyer, Jan Rubens (later to become Peter Paul Rubens’ father), and gave him a daughter. Willem annulled the marriage claiming Anna was insane.

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

He then married the French aristocrat Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier, grand-daughter to an illegitimate half-sister to French king Francis I. When she was only two week old, her mother placed her in a royal convent to be raised as a nun. When Charlotte reached 25, she escaped from the convent, converted to Calvinism, and took refuge in the Palatinate. Three years later, she was married to Willem to whom she gave six daughters.

A year after Charlotte’s death, Willem married for the last time in 1583 to Louise de Coligny. Louise was the daughter of the French Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who along with Louise’s first husband had been killed during the Saint Bartholomew massacre. Following Willem’s death, Louise raised their son, Frederick Henry and Willem and Charlotte’s six daughters.

Willem, Prins van Oranje

Willem, Prins van Oranje


Henri IV of France, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism to become the king of France, and whose wedding celebration to the French king’s sister was the occasion that brought about the Saint Bartholomew massacre, suffered a fate similar to Willem. He too was killed by a Catholic fanatic, Ravaillac.   

In the midst of a 16th Century that was deeply affected by religious turmoil, Willem explained his conflict with Philip II to the Council of State as follows ”I can not approve that monarchs desire to rule over the conscience of their subjects and take away from them their freedom of belief and religion.”

The right to rites

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

Or rather the right to celebrating rites.

Marking what initially were religious holidays can sometimes be the occasion of celebrations that bear little - if any - connection to the reason for the origin of the holiday.

St-Patrick's celebration, Beacon, NY

St-Patrick's celebration, Beacon, NY

An early celebration of St Patrick’s day recently in Beacon, NY, turned what had been an afternoon parade of strangely clad celebrants into an evening of police activity.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, the first one after a long period of sustained cold weather. People were ready to party. And party they did.

In true Irish tradition, the beer kept flowing throughout the afternoon, and flowed… a little bit too much. What had started as a day of enjoyment ended up with a confrontation between overly stimulated St Patrickers and a few police officers trying to bring law and order back to what is  otherwise usually a peaceful town.

Racing to celebrate, St Patrick's Day Celebration, Beacon, NY, 14 March 2009

Racing to the party, St Patrick's Day Celebration, Beacon, NY, 14 March 2009

Browsing through a guidebook of England evoked another modern day interpretation of ancient religious rites: the neo-druidic cult that has developed around Stonehenge. Reading up the guide entry reminded me that I had been fortunate enough to visit Stonehenge at a time when one could still walk right to the middle of the stone alignment. I remember imagining  what the place would have been like when the druids were worshiping there, and thinking of a more recent Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The very physicality of ancient sites serves as a reminder that something happened there. The frequent mystery that surrounds the origins of these sites is usually an added incentive for researchers to find an explanation of what that something was. It may also encourage a modern day usage in a way that is thought to replicate the purpose for which the site was initially designed.

A few years following my visit, Stonehenge became enclosed to protect it from overly eager tourists, but maybe more importantly from the crowds of a revived druidic cult followers who, once a year, come to celebrate the summer solstice. According to these neo-druids, they should be granted full access to their place of worship. The English Heritage has obviously judged otherwise.

Whether it is about celebrating a religious in the manner one cares to mark it, or using a site according to the initial purpose for which it was designed, a question for consideration is the extent to which protecting the right to hold the celebration should be of concern at all, or whether such a right should be exercised in the manner the celebrant would chose.

Not quite the first one… but a Great contender

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Detail of the Magna Carta

Detail of the Magna Carta

Frequently referred to as the first text that ever codified human rights, the Magna Carta was signed in June 1215, in Runnymede, near Windsor, England.

The Great Charter brought a temporary end to a long revolt against King John by his barons. A major reason for the revolt was the heavy taxes levied by the Crown, following the loss of the French territories which had drastically reduced the State income. After the barons had entered London by force, the King had to negotiate. Granting individual rights and liberties, and recognizing the right of the Church of England to freely elect its leaders, the Charter signalled the recognition of secular law by the Crown of England.

In addition to the revolt of the barons, a dispute over the right and privileges of the Roman Catholic Church had been ongoing in England. In 1206, the designation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church, became a major issue. While normally appointed by the King, the monks of Canterbury had decided they wanted to elect the Archbishop and sent their choice to Rome. The King responded by appointing his own candidate as Archbishop, John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich. In turn, Pope Innocent III designated a third choice, Cardinal Stephen Langton.

Originally from Lincolnshire, Langton had taught at the Paris Sorbonne University, with the Pope as one of his students. Like another Archbishop of Canterbury - Thomas Beckett, coincidentally (or maybe not) also a Pontigny two-year exilee -, Langton believed in the independence of the Church from the Crown.

King John refused to recognize the Pope’s choice, and for six years, from 1207 to 1213, in the Cistertian Abbey of Pontigny, in Burgundy, Langton waited for the King to let him into England as Archbishop. A series of retortion measures ensued from the Pope’s side, such as the interdiction of public services, including masses and marriages, and the excommunication of the King, until King John had no choice but to accept the Pope’s decision.

As head of the Church, Langton played a key role in the negotiation between the King and his barons, which led to the signature of the Charter. Because of his role, some sources have suggested that the Magna Carta was actually drafted in Pontigny during Langton’s exile, or that at least the ideas it contains were first conceived there. It is also suggested that it was Langton who knew of the Charter of Liberties issued by King Henry I when he ascended the throne in 1100. The wording of the 1215 text closely follows some articles of the earlier text, and similar rights are granted. It is the circumstances under which the texts were issued that differ majorly: the earlier text was proclaimed willingly by King Henry whereas the latter was imposed on King John by the barons.

Originally drafted in Latin, the Magna Carta was translated into English, and is today recognized as the first text codifying individual rights in England. In 1956, Sir Winston Churchill had this to say about the Charter:

Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.

Not surprisingly, the Magna Carta granted liberties to the Church first, including freedom of elections, and then to the freemen governed by the laws of England.

1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs for ever that the English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs for ever. We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs for ever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs for ever.

Some of the articles are extremely specific, such as the article giving an actual figure for the fee earls, barons, or knights have to pay to the Crown before being able to receive their inheritance.

2. If any of our earls or barons, or others holding of us in chief by military service shall have died, and at the time of his death his heir shall be of full age and owe ” relief”  he shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient relief, namely the heir or heirs of an earl, 100 pounds for a whole earl’s barony; the heir or heirs of a baron, 100 pounds for a whole barony; the heir or heirs of a knight, 100 shillings at most for a whole knight’s fee; and whoever owes less let him give less, according to the ancient custom of fiefs.

Sixty-three articles in total spell out the rights and liberties granted by King John, which include anti-corruption and fair trade clauses as well as the right for widows not to remarry against their will. Great attention was paid to address any potential issue of concern. As an example, in three  cases only can feudal taxes be imposed:

12. No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid.

Also worth noting is the order in which the various rights are listed. The essential rights to justice and to a fair trial are mentioned towards the end .

39. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land..

40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

Going beyond just rights, the Magna Carta also serves to promote standards, such as the standardization of weights and measures which comes as article 35, before the right to justice. This demonstrated a forward-looking vision compared to other parts of Europe. France for one only adopted similar measures with the Décret relatif aux poids et aux mesures during the revolution, on 18 germinal an 3 (7 April 1795).

35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn, to wit, ” the London quarter;”  and one width of cloth (whether dyed, or russet, or “halberget” ), to wit, two ells within the selvages; of weights also let it be as of measures.

If the Charter brings an end to the conflict between the King and his barons, some are not forgiven and are individually named.

50. We will entirely remove from their bailiwicks, the relations of Gerard Athee (so that in future they shall have no bailiwick in England); namely, Engelard of Cigogne, Peter, Guy, and Andrew of Chanceaux, Guy of Cigogne, Geoffrey of Martigny with his brothers, Philip Mark with his brothers and his nephew Geoffrey, and the whole brood of the same.

Even though King John did not respect the Charter - he actually died one year after signing it-, the text was reissued in 1216, 1217, and 1225, then in 1297 and it became the source of other legal texts. With a total of 4,699 words, the Magna Carta not only provides a reference text as to the rights and freedoms of the English freemen of 1215, it also offers a fascinating picture of English society at the time.


Chesapeake, George Calvert and Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis, December 2008

Visiting Chesapeake recently was another opportunity to verify that discrimination based on religious belief has been a reality for many centuries.

As one reads up about the early days of American history, it quickly becomes very clear that a large number of the early discoverers and settlers wished to lead a life where they would be free to practice their religious beliefs.

The history of Maryland has been shaped by settlers and people who stood up for their rights. The similarities between two men who deeply influenced the future of the State - George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton - were a seredenpitous discovery. Thanks to a royal charter, the first Lord Baltimore - named after Baltimore, Ireland - basically created Maryland. By fighting on the side of independence from the British crown, Charles Carroll played a pivotal role in ensuring that Maryland became one of the 13 founding States. Both men were Catholic, and both men were subject to laws discriminating against Catholics.

This heritage may explain the Free to be Catholic sign which was on display on a religious building close to Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s house in Annapolis, in early December 2008.

Annapolis Church

Annapolis Church

George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, came to the New World in the hope of finding a refuge for English Catholics. After establishing Avalon, on the island of Newfoundland, he looked for a gentler climate and obtained a royal charter to settle the region that is now Maryland.

In England, Calvert’s family had had to suffer from two penal laws, enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity of 1559 required that any citizen wishing to hold a high office would need to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath included a denial of the authority of the Pope over the church.

As a child, George was subjected to many forms of interference in the religious life of the Calvert family: they were compelled to attend church, one of his tutors having been denounced as popish, he and his brother were sent to a Protestant tutor. Catholic servants were banned, and the family was forced to purchase and display an English Bible. In 1593, his mother Grace was committed to the custody of an official responsible for prosecuting Catholics, a “pursuivant.”

After graduating from Oxford, Calvert occupied several positions that led him to becoming one of the two principal Secretaries of State of King James in 1619. As a member of a commission, Calvert in 1613 had to recommend for Catholic schools to be suppressed in Ireland.

Early on, Calvert demonstrated interest in the exploration of the New World, and he invested money in the Virginia Company and the East India Company. When he obtained the position of Commissioner of the Treasury, with rights on the duties collected on imported raw silk, his fortune was secured. In 1620, Calvert purchased a tract of land in Newfoundland.

In 1625, shortly after he resigned his Secretariat position, his conversion to Catholicism became public knowledge. He had retained his place on the Privy Council, a position he had to also abandon when King Charles I required all privy councilors to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance.

After having moved to Ireland, Calvert decided to pursue his interest in Avalon, the colony he had established in Newfoundland  where he promoted free religious worship, allowing  Catholics to worship in one part of his house and the Protestants in another.

One winter in Avalon was enough to convince him that the rigorous climate was not suited for his colony, and he moved to Jamestown in Virginia, where he knew tobacco could be grown. Upon his refusing to sign the oaths of supremacy and allegiance there, he had to leave and go back to England where he fought for a charter granting him rights over a piece of land on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. The charter was finally granted on 20 June 1632, five weeks after his death, and Maryland became a refuge for British Catholics, who emigrated to settle tobacco plantations.

A century and a half later, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. The son of a wealthy plantation owner of Irish descent, he was born in 1737 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

At the age of eight, he was sent to France where he studied at a college run by English Jesuits in Saint-Omer, and then in Paris, at Louis le Grand. Having started to study law in Bourges and Paris, in 1757, he moved to London to complete his legal education and returned to Maryland in 1765.

Under laws of the British Colonies - similar to those that forced Calvert to resign his Cabinet position - as a Roman Catholic, Carroll was deprived of political rights, including the right to vote.

After the passage of the Stamp Act, and the exorbitant taxes imposed by Maryland Governor Eden, Carroll  became actively involved politically and started writing in the Maryland Gazette, under the name The First Citizen, defending the colonies rights to control their own taxation, and arguing for a return to natural law.

A member of the Annapolis Convention, in early 1776, he was sent to Canada by the Continental Congress along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase. Their mission was to persuade the Canadian colonies to relinquish their allegiance to the British crown, and join the American colonies in their fight for independence.  Although the mission to Canada failed, Carroll became instrumental in convincing a reserved Maryland Convention to vote for independence.

On July 4, 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress, and while he was too late to vote for it, he signed the Declaration of Independence, which was officially signed by all members of Congress on an engrossed on parchment version, on August, 2, 1776.

Signing the Declaration entailed a risk for all the signers - as they exposed themselves to confiscation of their properties - but maybe more so for Charles Carroll, considered to be the colonies’ wealthiest individual. Recognizing this, he made sure to add of Carrollton to his signature to ensure that he would be properly identified.

Carroll died at 95 in 1832, two centuries after Calvert, and at the time of his death, as the longest living signer of the Declaration, was regarded with veneration by the American people.

Why rights from the start

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Amnesty International 2000 Campaign - Vanity Fair

Amnesty International 2000 Campaign - Vanity Fair

Last week, in Albany, NY, dozens of Protestants were forced from their church at gunpoint by local authorities. Three ministers and 23 others were executed and buried in a mass grave a few miles west of town. Thousands more were forced to abandon their homes and leave the state or risk execution.

The surprising news, published in January 2001 in Vanity Fair, must have come as a shock to the magazine readership, more used to the latest from Hollywood or the world of fashion.  Both text and layout looked like the beginning of a regular article. The second paragraph immediately reassured the potentially alarmed reader.

This didn’t happen in Albany. Or Chicago. Or Tucson. But what if it did? How would you feel? What would you do? Horrible acts against human rights are committed all over the world every day. This one actually happened in East Timor in 1999 to 26 people including women, children and three Catholic priests. They were seeking sanctuary in their church from anti-independence militia units organized by the Indonesian military. Tens of thousands who fled the region to save their lives remain trapped in refugee camps.

What can you do to help? Write a letter. Write an e-mail. Write a check. Become one of Amnesty International’s one million members today… Human rights violations can happen anytime, anywhere - even here.

Such acts are violations of human rights, whether they happen in the United States or elsewhere. And similar events actually happen in other parts of the world, and sometimes are part of daily life for citizens of some countries. Once this reality established, Amnesty International reveals itself and calls for support. If the news were reported as happening in country where these may be daily almost ordinary occurences, it is likely that they would have attracted less attention. For the reader to  perceive them as extraordinary, the facts were transposed to a context where they are going to be truly shocking : as part of the advocacy campaign, the events were transposed from East Timor to Albany, NY.

A single word was sufficient to make the events even worse: Protestant. In an American context, the alleged victims had to be Protestant. Why was this change of religion necessary: would Catholic victims not have been considered as equally worthy of compassion?

This necessary double transposition of the facts, location and religion, started me thinking  about the universal recognition of human rights. And I decided to look at the extent to which human rights concepts are recognized in every part of the world, by different cultures and religions, and also whether - if recognized - human rights were to be applied across the board, without any discrimination.