ATLANTA - Seeking to show universal concern for religious freedom, the nation's Catholic bishops discussed Thursday federal government policies that they say redefine ministry, but also heard a plea from an Iraqi archbishop who said his country's Christians are being killed or forced to flee.
"As leaders of the church in the United States, you bear a special responsibility toward the people and Christians of Iraq. In 2003 your country led the war that brought some terrible consequences," said Bishop Schlemon Warduni, an auxiliary bishop of Babylon of the Chaldeans. His nation has gone from one where Christians and Muslims were friends to one where churches are bombed and clergy kidnapped, tortured and killed, he said.
"No more war, no more death, no more explosions, no more injustice," he told the bishops, who were gathered in Atlanta for their semiannual meeting.
They devoted two hours to religious freedom, with much discussion on their fight against a federal rule that doesn't exempt Catholic agencies from a mandate to provide free contraceptives to employees. They stressed that persecution overseas is far worse than any difficulties they face. But several speakers warned that America may be on a slippery slope to marginalizing faith.
Thomas Farr, a former director of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, argued that the freedom to publicly debate and change religious views is necessary for a stable, just civil society.
But such freedom is in "global crisis," he said. According to recent studies from the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries where religious freedom is highly restricted, and those restrictions are growing.
Hostility toward people of faith is rising rapidly in Western Europe, although the forms it takes are mild compared to the violence in some other nations, he said.
The problem, he said, is "a belief that religious freedom is not only unnecessary for human flourishing or social development, but that it poses a threat to these and other goods." Despots from Stalin to Saddam Hussein acted on that premise, he said.
Mr. Farr accused the Obama administration of indifference, saying it waited 18 months to appoint an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.
At a news conference, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the bishops' conference, downplayed such criticism of the Obama administration, saying he thought American foreign policy had a history of neglecting religious freedom.
He praised the U.S chief of mission in Iraq, Ambassador Peter Bodde, for his efforts to consult and work with Catholic leaders.
John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., listed a half-dozen instances in which he argued that the current administration sought to restrict religious rights. But the bishops' focus has been on a government mandate for insurance coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and morning-after drugs.
The bishops say that a modification proposed by President Obama - in which the insurance company would supply the coverage directly to employees of religious agencies - is inadequate.
The bishops stressed that their basic objection isn't to people's ability to access contraceptives but to a definition of religious ministry that separates their care for the poor and the sick from what they do in church on Sunday.
Under the rule, only religious institutions that primarily employ and serve their own members - usually houses of worship - are exempt from the contraceptive requirement. Those that hire and serve people of other faiths must comply with the rule. The bishops say the government is redefining their agencies as something other than Catholic ministries.
In his speech outlining the bishop's opposition to this rule, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore didn't mention contraception.
"Other Christians, Jews, Muslims and all people of faith - even those who reject religion altogether - the right to religious freedom belongs to all of them," he said.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C., who has had discussions with government leaders about the mandate, told the bishops to focus on the definition of religious freedom, not on the morality of contraception.
In an interview he said he couldn't talk about his talks with the administration.
"The effectiveness of quiet conversations is that they are quiet," he said.
Other federal agencies, such as the IRS, already have workable definitions of religious employers that should be used in this case, he said.
"The arguments and the lawsuits are not about contraception," he said. "The government can't redefine ministry in the Catholic church. They can't define what it means to be living out the Jewish or Muslim or Christian faith."
Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel with the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bishops have no case.
"No one is defining who is or isn't religious" she said. "The question here is whether institutions that operate in the public sphere and employ people of diverse backgrounds should comply with a law designed to protect and promote the health of their workers."
But it was Cardinal Francis George of Chicago who raised an unsettling question for the bishops: "What if we fail?"
He named three options. One was, is for Catholic social services to become secular, which would hobble the church's efforts to demonstrate Jesus' call to help the hurting. Another was, is to pay federal fines that would ultimately bankrupt them. In the third instance, "Will we turn a blind eye and tolerate this ... to keep services going?" he asked.
The last, he said, would breach Catholic moral principles and "leave us in an even worse situation."
Mr. Garvey presented a more optimistic alternative. The church, he said, needs to persuade people that it's important to love God.
"A society doesn't care about religious freedom if it doesn't care about God," he said.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.