28 March 2019, The Tablet

A pathway to religious freedom

Pope Francis in Morocco

A pathway to religious freedom

Worshippers at St Peter’s Cathedral, Rabat, which the Pope is due to visit on Sunday
CNS/Reuters, Rafael Marchante


The denial of religious freedom in the Islamic world is an obstacle to peace between Christians and Muslims. But there are lessons to be drawn from the Catholic Church’s own difficult journey to an embrace of religious freedom which Francis could share with Muslim leader

In becoming the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula last month, Pope Francis evoked his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, who, near the end of his life, journeyed to Egypt to try to convert the Muslim Sultan to Christianity and ended up engaging him in a dialogue about peace. In his dialogue with Muslims in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), our latter-day Francis raised the issue that is proving the greatest obstacle to peace and reconciliation between Catholics and Muslims: religious freedom.

Tu quoque! Pope Francis’ Muslim friends might well have pointed out that St Francis encountered the Sultan on the front lines of the wars of the Crusades – not the most sparkling example of the Church’s contribution to religious freedom. Or that fifteenth and sixteenth-century Catholic Spain expelled Muslims and Jews who then found refuge under a different Sultan in the far more tolerant Ottoman Empire. Or that the Church had conducted brutal inquisitions over the course of six centuries, and that Catholics had fought sometimes savage ­religious wars with Protestants for a century-and-a-half.

Still, Pope Francis showed integrity in not trying to side-step the issue of religious freedom in his dialogue with Muslim leaders. We may hope that he will do the same on his visit to Morocco this weekend.

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