Christian-Muslim relations have followed a sinuous path throughout the centuries. At times they have provided reason for hope, and at others they have encountered stumbling blocks in the path to mutual understanding. While the Second Vatican Council seemed to pave the way to a more accepting and opening dialogue, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg speech, and the baptism of an Egyptian journalist who converted from Islam, were perceived as provocation in interreligious dialogue circles, but received support from some.
In this context, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is presented on both sides as a new step in the history of Christian-Muslim understanding. In his response, focusing on the section of the exhortation entitled “Social dialogue as a contribution to peace” (paragraphs 238 to 258), Dr. A. Rashied Omar underlines Pope Francis’ specific commitment to dialogue and the fact that he has earned “popular admiration” among Muslims, in contrast to Pope Benedict XVI whose relationship with Islam and Muslims was viewed as far more troubled.
While the goals and values of Christianity and Islam seem to be wide and disparate, there are frequent points of convergence. Pope Francis highlights the Catholic traditional concepts of the common good, integral development (paragraph 240), natural law, the supreme value of the human person at every stage of life (paragraph 242), ethical commitment (paragraph 252), the social dimension of the Gospel message (paragraph 258), and liberation and promotion of the poor (paragraph 187). Dr. Omar highlights references to genuine morality, work on the roots of violence, and social critiques of our global culture of consumerism, covetousness, and opulence.
Along with Pope Francis (paragraph 253), Dr. Omar acknowledges that the religious freedom of Christian minorities is “a matter of grave concern which urgently needs to be taken up more honestly and robustly”. Moreover, he notes that Pope Francis has made his plea for the rights of Christian minorities in countries of Islamic tradition in a “judicious and sensitive manner”, while at the same time expressing the need for Christians to embrace Muslim immigrants in Europe with affection and respect.
Notwithstanding these lines of understanding, it is possible to notice some gaps in the discourse used by Pope Francis and Dr. Omar vis-à-vis the secular world and, in particular, the modern right to freedom of conscience.
Neither Pope Francis nor Dr. Omar makes reference to the right of freedom of conscience, which was mentioned in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) along with freedom of worship and freedom to choose one’s religion. Significantly, it is not mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation. Perhaps the concern that freedom of conscience might be interpreted as the freedom to pursue “purely individual religious experiences” (paragraph 254), or that it might pave the way to “atheistic immanentism” is behind this silence. This has been a constant fear within the Catholic magisterium, which generally differentiates freedom from civil coercion in matters of religion on the one hand, and freedom from religion on the other.
Dr. Omar understands the “moral standard of tolerance, dialogue and compassion” set in the Qur’an (22:40), as necessary to uphold the rights of a legal minority to freedom of worship. He also calls for leaders to overcome the prevailing interpretation of the Islamic law on apostasy, mentioning the efforts of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. However, he overlooks the fact that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, remains the reference for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—specifically Article 10 which states: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature (fitra). It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.” This Article fails to recognize the right to convert, in as much as it lacks a proper foundation in man’s freedom of conscience. The recent debate in the Tunisian National Assembly—particularly regarding Article 6, with its focus on the State’s commitment to the protection of the sacred, and the prohibition of any offense thereto—proved that legislating for freedom of conscience in some Muslim majority countries can be still a stumbling block.
Until now, representatives of Islam and Catholicism have allowed this important issue, which has important anthropological implications, to remain in the shadows. The anthropology underneath “freedom of conscience” and “religious freedom” is not exactly the same, and ought to be differentiated. Freedom of religion presupposes a notion of the human as a naturally religious being, who is inclined by nature to believe in and worship God. Some Islamic scholars go as far as saying that mankind is by his or her own nature (fitra) Muslim. Freedom of conscience, on the other hand, presupposes an idea of the human as a thinking being, with no such natural proclivity toward belief in God. It allows for the possibility for man to believe or not to believe.
Dominique Avon, Professor of Modern History at the Université du Maine, France, is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Akron, Ohio. Specializing in the History of 20th Century Religion, he has taught in Egypt (1992-1994) and in Lebanon (2004-2005). He runs the international network HEMED. Avon is the author of Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”, (Harvard University Press, 2012) with A-T. Khatchadourian.