The Position paper for the annual Italian Muslim-Catholic meeting prepared by the Office for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Italian Bishops’ Conference and shared with the main Italian Islamic associations

Last update: 2023-08-30 12:19:21

No one should be forced to believe. In these simple words, we can sum up the core of religious freedom, an idea and principle which is already found in the oldest religious expressions of humankind. In the biblical revelation, this attitude finds its fullest expression in Jesus’s way of acting. He “bore witness to the truth, but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it” (Dignitatis Humanae 11). The same principle of not forcing faith is also asserted in the Qur’an in verse 2:256 (“There is no compulsion in religion: rectitude has become distinct from error”), which most contemporary interpreters consider as valid for all epochs and times. A similar expression is found, again in the Qur’an, in sura 109, in verse 6: “To you your religion, and to me my religion.”


Nevertheless, the no-compulsion principle has had to deal with another, no less powerful ideal: the unity of the human community, whose implementation seems to require unification of the political with the religious sphere. So, in most societies, religious uniformity was (and sometimes is) the norm, dissidence the exception. Even now, in many states, the only permitted form of religious freedom is freedom of worship. Yet, however important it may be, worship remains a limited dimension if not extended to other spheres (charitable/philanthropic, cultural, of personal witnessing) in which religious communities find expression at the social level.


Historically, even if the ethical ideal of no compulsion is expressed in the Bible and the Qur’an, the juridical translation of this principle had to wait for the religious wars that bloodied the European continent between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This tragic experience prompted the emergence of the right of religious freedom, first in a “half dozen states which reached their apex in the first half of the twentieth century”, then to a “universal scale.”[1] A decisive step in this direction was without doubt the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 of which reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[2]


Nowadays, international law considers religious freedom a fundamental right of the human person, and state legislation is called upon to guarantee it both in negative terms—lack of compulsion in religious choice—and positive terms—to guarantee the conditions for the different religious communities to socially express their faith. Furthermore, today’s believers are called upon to formulate religious freedom in new social and political contexts characterized by high rates of religious and cultural pluralism. Hence the challenge is for religions to safeguard the ideal of no compulsion in religious choice in a new way, while enabling the different communities to socially express their faith in dialogue with a pluralistic context, including its non-religious positions.


The formulation of religious freedom in Enlightenment was not without ambiguities and this explains why it initially met with opposition from the Church. Suffice it to think of the famous parable of the three rings told by Lessing in the drama Nathan the Wise (1779), in which three sons, evidently symbolizing Jews, Christians and Muslims, received three rings as a gift from their father. Each one is convinced that he has received the real ring and that the other two are copies, but in reality—Lessing’s parable states—there is no way of knowing who is right. Each one has to act as if he had the real ring.


If we think about it for a moment, it is obvious that a religious freedom formed on these bases clashes with the truth claim that is equally central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike. For the three religions it is not true that there is no telling apart the rings, so their supposed equivalence cannot be the reason why the three brothers accept each other. A religious freedom based on these presuppositions has no chance of being accepted by committed believers, even though a norm safeguarding religious freedom is still a good thing, whatever its philosophical basis.


But there is another, much richer way of articulating religious freedom and this is what Italian Christians and Muslims wish to publicly state in their annual meeting. Religious freedom can be based on human dignity. Religions are not all equal, the rings in the parable can be told apart. Of course, the providential path that we have undertaken has made us each aware of the value of the other’s faith and opened our eyes to the fact that, for Christians, the Qur’an partakes of the biblical universe, while for Muslims the original Gospel is the earlier form in which God revealed his Word. But it also goes without saying that for Christians, the definitive revelation is not in a book, but in a person, Jesus Christ, and for Muslims the cycle of the Revelation is only completed with Muhammad, the Seal of Prophethood. We are not afraid of acknowledging the differences that separate us, in the same way as we are happy to underline the points that we have in common. In fact, the religious freedom we are advocating is not based on an agreement on dogma or law or on agnosticism, but on the fact that we recognize the dignity of the person who is before us.


It is true: error has no rights and partial truth only has partial rights. However, even if a person were to get their way completely wrong, they do not lose their dignity. And this dignity implies no compulsion and the guarantee that they can freely live out their religious quest. The conciliar declaration Dignitatis Humanae is outright on this: “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, provided just public order is observed” (no. 3). An ideal echo to this text can be found in a Syrian Islamic thinker who died recently, Jawdat Said. In his Concept of Change he writes: “You will not resolve the problem of change if you do not love those who differ from you. But how can we do this? How can we love error? And those who commit it? […] We have to love the sick and hate the sickness: this way we lift ourselves to a higher level. Jesus, may peace be with him, was not asking the impossible when he said: ‘Love your enemies’ (Mt 5:44).”[3] The ultimate and most solid foundation of religious freedom is therefore not indifference, “each to their own”, or the resigned pessimism of “who can ever know the truth?”, but love for the other.


While these statements may seem too lofty for our everyday problems, they are actually crucial at the political level too. Indeed, religious freedom is the first rung on the ladder of freedom. If forced in their conscience, sooner or later human beings will be forced in everything else too. If free in their conscience, their freedom will tend to spread to the other aspects of social and political life.


As recalled in the Florence Charter,[4] it is vital to foster religious freedom for all, in Italy, in the Mediterranean, and in the world, in order to help build a good life and the human fraternity desired by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb. The document they signed in Abu Dhabi on 4 February 2019 reads: “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. […] Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.” A Common Word between Us and You, the open letter drawn up by 138 Muslim scholars and addressed to the heads of the Christian communities all over the world, follows along the same lines, reminding Christians and Muslims of their shared responsibility towards humankind and how the love of God is inseparable from the love of all humankind. In this document we read in particular that “justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part” of love of one’s neighbour.[5]


In the end, a society without religious freedom is a society which curbs the deepest energies of human beings. We want these energies to be freed.

[1] Dominique Avon, Liberté de conscience. Histoire d’une notion et d’un droit, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, Rennes 2020, p. 19, own translation.
[3] Jawdat Said, Mafhūm al-taghryīr (The Concept of Change). Italian translation in: Vie islamiche alla non violenza, Zikkaron, Marzabotto 2017, pp. 47-49.
[4] The original text is available at An English translation is available at Of the many statements contained in the Charter, we highlight the following: “The importance of the reinforcement of inter-cultural and inter-religious relations, in order to reach a higher level of mutual understanding between individuals of different origin, language, culture, and religious creed.”