Attempts by the Church to compel "obedience" through violence are a cause for humility and shame, the Archbishop of Canterbury said today.
The Most Rev Justin Welby also said that to take away a person's freedom to believe or not to believe is "to violate the core of their humanity".
Archbishop Welby, writing in The Times, said: "We must never compel or manipulate people into faith."
He added: "This is why the church's sporadic record of compelling obedience to its teachings through violence and coercion is a cause for humility and shame."
At the same time, faith can never be an optional extra or a consumer choice, like deciding which type of car to buy, he said.
Work needs to be done to develop the language used by political and religious leaders to talk about religious belief in their own contexts, and how we understand the beliefs of others, he continued. "Religion defines us. For me, there is quite literally nothing more important than knowing, loving and serving Jesus Christ."
The transformational power of religious belief needs to be nurtured, while distinguishing it from the "mutations of religion" that do so much harm.
Describing a visit to a village of straw-roofed huts and a school which had been attacked by raiders, the Archbishop gave a compelling example of the realities of religious persecution.
"I found one man, like Job, sitting on a heap of ash. The raiders had killed his wife and six children. He had hidden down a well for three days. On a nearby hill, a raider stood silhouetted with a rifle in his arms and watched us the whole time we were there. The cause of this brutal attack? The village was a Christian community."
In the Central African Republic Christians have attacked Muslims. Christian churches are burned in south India, Muslim and Christian villages attacked in parts of Myanmar. In the Levant and Mesopotamia, the extreme violence wreaked by Islamic State continues.
"Close to home, the firebombing of mosques in this country, and the atrocious attacks on Jewish communities across Europe show that too many people, of all faiths, find their fundamental human right to freedom of religion and belief under attack," Welby said.
He was writing as Lord Alton of Liverpool leads a debate on religious freedom and belief in the House of Lords today. His motion notes violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and urges the UK and international community to give greater priority to upholding this right.
The Archbishop said: "Jesus gave those he encountered absolute freedom of choice as to whether to follow him or not: the thieves on either side of Jesus, as he hung on the cross, were given a choice whether to believe in him: one turned to him, the other cursed him. That is freedom. It is a freedom that should apply to people whatever their faith, or those who are atheists."