March 1, 2007

Making the World Safe for Faith

capCombating Religious Hatred through Freedom to Believe” is the theme of the International Religious Liberty Association’s World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, February 27 to March 1. Aiming to highlight instances of religious persecution in many world regions, the IRLA’s primary goal is to equip delegates with the knowledge and support to effectively advocate for change in their respective nations and organizations.
An increase in radicalism that has resulted in a surge of religious intolerance will be among the themes considered by this year's International Religious Liberty World Congress. This is the first such gathering to be held on the continent of Africa—an area of the world that, until recently, had relatively few religious liberty concerns.
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NATIONAL ICON: Banned and under house arrest for eight years (1975-1983) under South Africa's apartheid regime, Ms. Ela Ghandi is a national symbol of tenacity and hope in her country. She served as a parliamentarian in the African National Congress government, and is currently the national vice-president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. She participated in a high-interest panel  on Tuesday afternoon focusing on racial and religious solidarity in South Africa. [Glenn Mitchell]

“Africa has long been very open to many kinds of religions, but there is more recent evidence of a surge in religious intolerance,” says Dr. John Graz, Secretary-General of IRLA. The Congress will highlight instances of religious persecution in many world regions. IRLA is offering 15 different workshops, among which are topics such as “Religious Freedom in Africa,” and “Religious Symbols in Public Schools and Church and State Separation in the USA.” 

“In the northern part of Africa, it is very difficult to have religious freedom,” Graz explained. “In some countries like Algeria,” he explains, “there is legislation against conversion and everything that can encourage one to change their religion. Eritrea is a very difficult place for religious minorities. In Somalia, you can be persecuted for following certain religious teachings. In parts of Nigeria, non-Muslim citizens are under the Muslim Sharia law.”
Graz noted that including government representatives in the Congress is key to bringing religious freedom to the fore because they learn what “they can do to improve the state of religious freedom in their country.”
“The way for us to make a change is by including speakers and experts from various religious backgrounds defending religious freedom,” Graz added. “They all have different approaches but all favor religious freedom. It is also a great example for the public because they can see that people from different backgrounds pull together in a peaceful environment, talking about something that can be very sensitive.”
“Most persecutions happen in secret. By having a Congress like this we are turning a blazing searchlight on places where religious intolerance exists so people can see that this is unacceptable,” added Dr Jonathan Gallagher, IRLA Deputy Secretary General.
“We hear many reports of attacks on places of worship, the burning and bombing of churches, mosques, and temples,” Gallagher continued. “Forced conversions, persecution of believers, and discrimination because of religion—such events are all too common in our world. Tragically religion has been hijacked, and has become the single most important factor of peace or war in many regions.”
C onversations with political and religious leaders in recent months indicate that many of them see the dangers of religious extremism and intolerance as alarming. They endorse the need to work for freedom of religion or belief and affirm the IRLA’s work.
Ghanaian President John A. Kufuor received ten representatives from the IRLA-sponsored second All-Africa Congress on Religious Liberty in 2006 and welcomed the opportunity to speak on his convictions regarding fundamental freedoms. “I also like the idea of all religions attending this Congress,” he noted. “Unfortunately much of our world today is suffering because of many conflicts and misunderstandings over religion. If we as individuals express ourselves and understand each other, then religious extremism will be done away with and this will make for happier times and a more peaceful world. We believe your way should be the way of the whole world.”
H.E. Patrick Manning, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, concurred: “Religion can be the most powerful force for liberty in society. However religion can also be one of the root causes of division, with intolerance of others, belief in the monopoly of sacred knowledge, and the incapacity to see alternatives. History has taught us that states have unfortunately been party to the suppression of religious liberty. There are those who would use religion as a divisive force amongst us, and we must work against such a tendency and mitigate this factor. Those who espy the bell of freedom should ring it, and those who hear it should respond to the call."
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BEHIND THE SCENES: The IRLA planning team worked with dozens of media outlets to focus international attention on the events and speakers of the World Congress. IRLA associate director Jonathan Gallagher and specialist Deborah Knott huddle here with Helderberg College volunteers Jonathan Msimanga and Otieno Mkandawire to plan communication strategy for the three-day Congress.[Glenn Mitchell]

The International Religious Liberty Association is a non-denominational organization established to promote and defend religious freedom for all people around the world. It is one of the oldest human rights organizations functioning today and organizes a world congress every five years in various parts of the world.

The IRLA is strongly supportive of the religious freedom aspects of such United Nations documents as the Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief. The IRLA’s primary focus is on education in religious freedom and combating religious intolerance wherever it occurs. It annually holds seminars and conferences in many parts of the globe. It also reports violations of religious rights to the relevant authorities, and works on individual cases where possible.
The IRLA works in cooperation with governments, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and other non-governmental organizations to highlight abuses of fundamental religious rights, working particularly to assist the UN special rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in carrying out her mandate.
An essential part of this process of raising awareness of religious intolerance and discrimination is through organizing world conferences and symposiums on matters related to freedom of conscience, religion and belief. The IRLA has some 70 affiliate religious freedom associations in places as diverse as Russia, the Caribbean, Venezuela, Peru, the U.S., and the Philippines.
In recent years IRLA representatives have made official visits to government representatives and other leaders in Azerbaijan, Russia, Venezuela, Trinidad, Peru, China, Switzerland, France, and Spain, among other locations.  All staff, officers and directors serve voluntarily. Funding for IRLA operations comes from organizations supportive of the association’s aims. Its purpose is universal and non-sectarian and seeks to address religious freedom concerns relative to all faith communities. 
Various religious traditions are represented on the IRLA Board of Directors, while the presidency rotates among a panel of vice presidents. The current President is Dr. Denton Lotz, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.
The IRLA board of experts brings together religious freedom professionals and educators from a wide range of backgrounds and countries, and made much progress in defining the role of religious education especially as it relates to concepts of religious freedom and human rights. The IRLA believes it is essential to develop educational curricula in which freedom of conscience and respect for human rights can be developed.
The IRLA’s aims are to:
     1. Disseminate the principles of religious liberty throughout the world;
     2. Defend and safeguard the civil right of all people to worship, to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, to manifest their religious convictions in observance, promulgation, and teaching, subject only to the respect for the equivalent rights of others;
     3. Support the right of religious organizations to operate freely in every country by their establishing and owning charitable or educational institutions;
     4. Organize local, national, and regional chapters, and to conduct seminars, symposiums, conferences and congresses.
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COMBAT WITHOUT VIOLENCE: More than 500 delegates from 40 countries gathered at the 6th World Congress of the International Religious Liberty Association at Cape Town's Convention Center beginning Tuesday, February 27, for a three-day conference titled "Combating Religious Hatred Through Freedom to Believe." [Glenn Mitchell]

The IRLA has won legal rights for individuals in discrimination issues, and has supported and defended those subject to persecution and intimidation. Recently the IRLA worked to produce a document on guidelines for responsible proselytism, an issue often at the heart of inter-religious conflict. Other guidelines include security and religious freedom, and the use of religious symbols in the public arena.

IRLA organizers expect up to 600 participants from all continents at this year’s World Congress, and attendees will include government officials, ambassadors, church leaders, lay leaders and religious freedom experts. It is expected that top South African leaders will attend the congress, including Ibrahim Rasool, Premier of the Western Cape; Reverend John G.W. Oliver of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative; and Ela Gandhi, former parliamentarian in South Africa, and director of the Gandhi Trust
Organizers said they chose South Africa as a venue to recognize the country's recent political changes and human rights' victories. In Cape Town, the Congress organizers plan to visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for 27 years.
Originally organized by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and chartered in 1893, the IRLA has advocated and defended around the world religious freedom and freedom of conscience ever since.
For more information on the IRLA World Congress go to: