world council of churches

Report from the Consultation on
"Religious Freedom, Community Rights and Individual Rights:
A Christian-Muslim Perspective"

On 14-16 October 1999, 32 Muslims and Christians from 15 countries met at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

Invited by the World Council of Churches's Office on Inter-religious Relations and Dialogue, they discussed the theme: "Religious Freedom, Community Rights and Individual Rights: a Christian-Muslim Perspective".

The Consultation was part of a continued Christian-Muslim discussion on Religion, Law and Society that began less than ten years ago. It chose to focus on the thorny issues pertaining to religious freedom, including those that have re-emerged, in the last few years, as sensitive and even divisive.

The participants were concerned with affirming the importance of enhancing and widening the scope of dialogue on religious freedom beyond a response by any one faith. They were invited to explore a Christian-Muslim approach, articulating common principles, guidelines for action and strategies of advocacy.

The participants affirmed that the starting point for discussing religious freedom should be human situations, rather than theoretical principles. Questions of religious freedom are not simply theoretical issues but often involve great human suffering. Moreover, religious freedom must be viewed from within geographical and national contexts as well as from the viewpoint of universal principles.

Such principles, and the considerations they imply, need to be repeatedly pondered as Christians and Muslims draw on the spiritual and ethical resources of their respective faith traditions. A common language on religious freedom must be developed through the search for a greater convergence on the questions of justice, human dignity and the respect of the Other. It is also reinforced by the ability of partners in dialogue to get involved, together, in a critical examination of the history and the present realities of Christian-Muslim relations.

In this respect, there have been many encouraging and challenging attempts, during the three previous decades, at addressing the issue of religious freedom in a way that favors mutual recognition and building trust, instead of accusation, denigration or hostility. Such attempts emphasized equally the perspectives of both rights, and obligations.

The Consultation took stock of these attempts and recognized particularly the relevance and value of the 1976 Chambésy statement "Christian Mission and Islamic Da'wah". This statement issued by a Christian-Muslim conference, convened by the World Council of Churches, was a ground-breaking effort in addressing openly and wisely issues of mission, dialogue, religious freedom and relations between Muslims and Christians, past and present. It was concluded with an invitation to establish permanent structures with Christian and Muslim participation for the purpose of "preventing or dealing with aberrations or violations of Muslim-Christian understanding by either party". This recommendation was discussed in a number of subsequent encounters, but creating such a forum remains an unfinished task requiring concentrated efforts.

Common affirmations

The participants in the Consultation agreed to make the following common affirmations:

Towards a continued dialogue and active cooperation

Participants at the Consultation underlined the centrality of Muslim-Christian work towards developing a common language on justice, human rights, human dignity, freedom, tolerance, respect, reciprocity, pluralism, citizenship, proselytism and witness. While much has been written and exchanged in this respect, more intentional effort is required to dissipate misunderstanding, challenge improper use of those terms in Christian and Muslim literature, and disseminate an agreed-upon approach to these complex realities.

More specifically, the issue of religious freedom needs to be addressed, beyond any narrow definition, juridical or otherwise. It needs to be thoroughly examined in relations to the questions of :

religion and culture
religion and identity
individual and community rights
universal principles and local cultural values
religious freedom and social or political justice
international aid programs and local religious and cultural sensitivities
triangular relationship between religion, religious community, and the nation state.
Other factors that need to be explored together are the politicization and manipulation of religion and the proper limits on freedom. Christians and Muslims need to be well informed about international law on religious freedom, where the concept of respect is rooted in that of human dignity. Muslims and Christians must assess critically the provisions of international law and allow their thinking to be challenged by it.

Guidelines for Muslim-Christian cooperation

The participants in the Consultation agreed to work on the elaboration of a set of Christian-Muslim guidelines or considerations on religious freedom, community rights and individual rights and obligations. In preparation for the drafting of a Christian-Muslim document for a wider use, an initial discussion identified, in general terms, some of these considerations and guidelines:


The Consultation concluded its work by recommending that Christians and Muslims involved in dialogue and cooperation in the area of religious freedom are called to:

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