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Religious Liberty advocates called to reach out beyond comfort zones

Speakers at the recent 16th Annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington D.C. made a resolute call to build bridges of understanding and strengthen networks as a way of fighting against religious intolerance and advocating freedom of conscience and belief. The May 22, 2018, event, sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) and other organizations, gathered dozens of religious liberty leaders, officers, and advocates at the Organization of American States headquarters to network, review challenges to freedom of belief, and present awards.

The 16th annual Religious Liberty Dinner was held at the Organization of American States in Washington D.C. on May 23. [Photo Credit: Mylon Medley]

“We often take for granted the freedom we have in this country,” said North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA) board president Orlan Johnson in welcoming attendees. “It is one of the reasons we need events like these, to serve as reminders of the freedoms we enjoy.”

The Rights of Minorities and Religious Freedom

The keynote speaker for the 2018 event, themed “Championing Freedom of Conscience for All,” was Turkish advocate, scholar, and author Aykan Erdemir. Harvard-educated Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011-2015), is an outspoken defender of pluralism, minority rights, and religious freedom in the Middle East. As such, he has been at the forefront of the struggle against religious persecution, hate crimes, and hate speech in Turkey and elsewhere.

In his keynote address, Erdemir emphasized the vital role of bridge builders for religious freedom. “It’s essential that we reach out of our close-knit communities, beyond our comfort zones, to others,” he said. “We need institutions which are not afraid to reach out to others.”

At the same time, Erdemir emphasized that reaching out does not necessarily mean giving up our beliefs. “Reaching out does not mean compromising our convictions and beliefs,” he said. “In fact, we shouldn’t give up our core values because recognizing our incommensurable differences is key as we talk and value each other.”

National and International Awardees

The annual dinner also took time to honor the efforts of prominent advocates for freedom of belief and the religious rights of minorities in the United States and around the world.

The 2018 National Award was presented to general counsel and associate executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty Holly Hollman. Washington D.C.-based Hollman provides legal analysis of church-state issues that arise before Congress, the courts, and administrative agencies. She regularly consults with churches, individuals, and organizations about religious liberty issues.

“[Hollman] is a consensus builder, a bridge-builder,” said former White House director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships Melissa Rogers in introducing the awardee. “And she is a committed Christian who believes religious freedom comes from God.”

In accepting the award, Hollman emphasized those and other points. “Honoring freedom of conscience is honoring God’s creation,” she said. “Working for religious freedom connects us with a broad range of experiences [and remind us that] we are dependent on each other and on the ability to come together to find common ground.”

The 2018 International Award was presented to Norwegian Parliament Deputy Speaker Abid Q. Raja. A lawyer by trade, Raja was the first Norwegian with a minority background to receive the King’s scholarship to Oxford University and is the author of two books that touch on themes of integration and religious tolerance.

For Raja, a Muslim, religious intolerance has more than just theoretical significance. Growing up in Norway as a child of immigrant parents from Pakistan, he experienced, firsthand, the impact of racial stereotyping and religious discrimination.

“Diversity is not something I take for granted,” he said in accepting the award.

The Adventist Contribution

Several Adventist religious liberty advocates emphasized the Adventist contribution to the discussion, thanks to the denomination’s longstanding commitment to religious freedom.

“The Seventh-day Adventist Church has had a long and distinguished tradition of championing religious freedom for all, not just church members,” explained Adventist Church’s Legislative Affairs director and liaison to the United States Congress Dwayne Leslie to Adventist Review. It is the reason, he said, that sponsoring events like these provides a unique opportunity for the church to “to take the lead in bringing together thought leaders and government officials to inform and equip them to better protect the principles of religious liberty.”

Events such as the Annual Religious Liberty dinner are also important on practical grounds, acknowledged Leslie, as the Adventist Church can highlight its religious liberty advocacy efforts in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. “As one of the fastest growing faith groups in the world, the Adventist Church often finds itself as a religious minority in many countries,” he told Adventist Review. “Therefore, we are particularly sensitive to protecting the rights of religious minorities and safeguarding freedom of conscience for all people.”

For IRLA general-secretary Ganoune Diop, who also heads the Adventist Church’s Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department, Adventist support of religious freedom runs even deeper, as it is grounded on a biblical understanding of God’s character. “There’s more to religious freedom than meets the eye,” Diop said. “From a faith-based perspective, it’s based on a trait of God.”

Diop went on to explain that believing that human beings were created in God’s image implies believing in the freedom to choose. “Religious freedom is dignified by love, and love cannot be forced,” he stated. “The goal of freedom is love.”

Liberty magazine editor Lincoln Steed, which co-sponsored the annual dinner, agreed. Referring to Thomas Jefferson, one of the American Founding Fathers, he quoted, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”

Current Challenges and Opportunities

Times for religious liberty, however, are complex, Diop reminded attendees. “On one hand, religious liberty is praised as a fundamental freedom,” he said. “At the same time, religious liberty is subjected to deep deconstruction. Some people even say religious liberty could be a code word for discrimination, and according to some critics, it is just a means to subjugate people in developing countries.”

New developments call for renewed efforts and initiatives in the area of religious freedom, experts said. One of those initiatives is the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB). The organization, which was founded by a small group of elected officials in 2014, has grown to an informal network of 130 parliamentarians and legislators from around the world committed to combating religious persecution and advancing freedom of religion or belief, as defined by Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration for Human Rights. Erdemir and Raja are two of the organization’s founding members.

Among the numerous initiatives of the IPPFoRB have been two international conferences — in New York and Berlin — and some 20 advocacy letters written on behalf of members of the IPPFoRB to governments of countries including Vietnam, Myanmar, North Korea, and Indonesia.

Reflecting in this year’s dinner, Leslie concluded by emphasizing its overarching purpose.“While the state of religious freedom continues to deteriorate in many parts of the world,” he said, “events like the [Religious] Liberty Dinner can be particularly useful in sparking new connections and conversations…on how to collaborate more effectively and increase the overall impact of the religious freedom narrative.”


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