VATICAN CITY -- Proclaiming freedom of conscience as mankind's "inalienable right," Pope John Paul II decried totalitarianism and intolerance and called religious fundamentalism a threat to world peace.
The 70-year-old pontiff returned to the theme of human rights for the third consecutive year in his message prepared for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace on Jan. 1.
Entitled "If You Want Peace, Respect the Conscience of Every Person," the 6,000-word message urges world governments to respect the rights of minorities and to allow individuals to freely pursue their own beliefs.
"People must not attempt to impose their own 'truth' on others," the pope said. "The right to profess the truth must always be upheld, but not in a way that involves contempt for those who may think differently. Truth imposes itself solely by the force of its own truth.
"Unfortunately," the pope noted, "we are still witnessing attempts to impose a particular idea on others, either directly, by a proselytism which relies on means which are truly coercive, or indirectly, by the denial of certain civil or political rights."
Published last week at the Vatican in Italian, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and Arabic, the papal appeal will be distributed to governments around the world and read in Catholic churches on New Year's Day.
The pope defended "the inalienable right to follow one's conscience and to profess and practice one's own faith," warning that those who violate such a fundamental human right risk causing "strained and hostile relations within society or even . . . open conflict."
"A serious threat to peace is imposed by intolerance, which manifests itself in the denial of freedom of conscience to others. The excesses to which intolerance can lead us has been one of history's most painful lessons."
Without naming them specifically, the pope attacked governments and societies that ban religious practices and those that impose a single religion.
When religious law becomes synonymous with civil law, the pope warned, it "can stifle religious freedom, even going so far as to restrict or deny other inalienable human rights."
"Intolerance can also result from the recurring temptation to fundamentalism, which easily leads to serious abuses, such as the radical suppression of all public manifestations of diversity, or even the outright denial of freedom of expression," he said.
Citing excesses in the history of his own church, the pope asserted that "no one ought to be compelled to believe" and observed that "even today much remains to be done to overcome religious intolerance which in different parts of the world is connected with the oppression of minorities."