Public Affairs and Religious Liberty
hen I was elected director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) in 1995, the most pressing issue we dealt with was about Sabbath observance. Countries such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Iran were listed among the worst in the way they treated religious minorities.
Today churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues are burned and believers are assassinated, crucified, or beheaded if they refuse to recant their faith. Christians are discriminated against or persecuted in 151 countries around the globe. Sending missionaries to certain places has become dangerous, with public evangelism forbidden in many countries. Our evangelists could be accused of blasphemy and hate speech. Religious fanatics could execute them. And they could be forced to spend a lot of money defending themselves in court.
In this context it is important to show people and authorities that religious freedom is a fundamental freedom that must be retained. How can this be done? By organizing events such as international and national congresses, meetings of experts, religious liberty dinners, and religious liberty concerts and festivals. Having thousands of people say, in word and action, “We love religious freedom and we want to keep it,” sends a strong, positive message to authorities. Since 2006 the Adventist Church has held 50 festivals in 45 cities on six continents, with approximately 350,000 people in attendance. No other church or religious liberty organizations have done that.
Ganoune Diop received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa in 2014 from Wallachia University in Targoviste, Romania.
John Graz poses with Canadian foreign affairs minister John Baird.
Dwayne Leslie poses with U.S. President Obama, at the White House’s Easter Prayer Breakfast in 2015.
The International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) was very active during these past five years. In 2012 the seventh IRLA World Congress was held in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, with 900 participants. This was the largest congress in our history. The annual IRLA Meeting of Experts has become one of the most significant think tanks on religious freedom in the world. In 2015 we will hold our seventeenth Meeting of Experts session.
The Annual Religious Liberty Dinner has made a difference in Washington, D.C., becoming “the religious liberty event in town.” The minister of foreign affairs from Canada was the keynote speaker in 2013.
Our mission also leads us to intervene for victims of religious prejudice around the world. In January 2014 we were blessed with the release of Pastor António Monteiro in Lomé, Togo.
Our division PARL directors have organized a number of symposia and congresses in 35 cities around the world. Among them: the third All-African Congress and the second Inter-American Congress. Regular continental congresses are also planned.
Initiated by Ganoune Diop, the first Inter-Church Symposium was held at the United Nations in New York. A similar meeting was organized by the Inter-European Division in the United Nations building in Geneva, during the Human Rights Council.
In November 2014 I stepped down from my position of secretary of the Conference of the Christian World Communions after 12 years. This conference, which is not the World Council of Churches, gathers the top Christian leaders once a year, and is an excellent place to share information. Upon my departure, Diop was elected as secretary. After Bert B. Beach and me, Diop is the third Seventh-day Adventist to hold this prestigious responsibility. For this group of Christian world leaders our church is seen as a “church that champions religious liberty”!
I thank my associates: Ganuone Diop, our ambassador to the United Nations and international organizations; and attorney Dwayne Leslie, our ambassador to the U.S. Congress and the White House. I cannot forget William G. Johnsson, who helped us with our interfaith relations; and our support staff, Gail Banner and Carol Rasmussen.
In our ministry, one of the keys of success is to stay faithful to God’s message and to make friends without compromising our faith.