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God's Servant First: Religious Freedom: The Mission of Our Latter-Day Francis


by Daniel Philpott

March 5, 2019

In early February, Pope Francis became the first pope to travel to the Arabian Peninsula, where he visited Abu Dhabi. Friendship between Catholics and Muslims was the purpose of the voyage. The Vatican announced the theme, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” evoking St. Francis of Assisi’s journey to Egypt and his encounter with the Sultan. Legend has it that Francis sought and failed to convert the Sultan and ended up conducting a dialogue with him. In today’s new dialogue, carried out by the pope who named himself for St. Francis, it was critical that Pope Francis raised the issue of religious freedom.

Multiculturalists in western universities object to such a message, insisting that religious freedom arises from the history of the West, is a Christian principle, and should not be imposed on Muslims. Conservatives also object, agreeing that religious freedom is a Western, Christian principle and holding that Muslims are incapable of accepting it. Pragmatists counsel caution and call for a focus on issues that are more likely to command consensus.

However, I am most grateful that the Holy Father addressed religious freedom in his message.  Now, the time is ripe for the Muslim world to embrace religious freedom.  Here are four reasons, drawn from my newly published book, Religious Freedom In Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, that should encourage us to join Pope Francis in speaking about religious freedom with our Muslim sisters and brothers.

First, the Church robustly embraced religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council in its declaration of 1965, Dignitatis humanae, and made this principle the cornerstone of its relationship with governments as well as other religions. Religious freedom is a principle of natural law, and thus knowable through reason, and is a human right possessed by all people of all faiths.

Second, much of the Muslim world suffers from a lack of religious freedom. On the whole, Muslim-majority countries are considerably less free in this regard than other countries, measured according to the rankings of the Pew Forum. Religious minorities, including Christians, as well as Muslim dissenters from prevailing orthodoxies, are widely repressed in these countries. The United Arab Emirates, for example, while not as repressive as other Muslim-majority states in the region, allows non-Muslims to worship privately but strongly regulates and restricts their religious behavior in public.

Third, there are good reasons to think that Muslims would be receptive to expanding religious freedom. Religious repression is far from the whole story among Muslim-majority states. Eleven of them (almost ¼) are religiously free, most of them concentrated in West Africa. There are numerous Muslims intellectuals who champion religious freedom on Islamic grounds, and important statements in which Muslim scholars, clerics, and political leaders have endorsed religious freedom. The Quran contains one of the strongest verses endorsing religious freedom in the scriptures of any religion: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). All of these are seeds of religious freedom that may be nurtured.

Fourth, religious freedom can bring good fruits to the Muslim world. Scholars have shown that religious freedom can mitigate authoritarianism, civil war, terrorism, poverty, and the subordination of women, all disproportionately high in the Muslim world.

Catholics must advocate religious freedom with humility, one of Pope Francis’s trademarks. While the road to Dignitatis humanae was long and slow, the Catholic Church is now in a position to invite today’s Muslims to travel a similar path.  Pope Francis has given us an excellent example of how we can engage in dialogue with the Muslim world about religious freedom in both humility and charity.

Daniel Philpott is a professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.  Philpott specializes in the relationship between religion and politics and Catholicism's contributions to freedom and democracy.

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