As religious freedom deteriorates around the world, the
Seventh-day Adventist Church has brought together a broad range of advocacy
organizations and public leaders to consider ways to drive the issue higher on
the public agenda.
The 2016 International Religious Liberty Summit, held at the
Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center in downtown Washington, focused on what has
become a key concern for religious freedom advocates — the relatively scarce
media and political attention given to rising rates of religious discrimination
The Pew Research Center estimates that some 5 billion people
globally face significant religious restrictions, and one in three people live in places
where religious freedom is severely restricted.
“There are cries of the persecuted that we are refusing to hear,”
said former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, one of the keynote speakers at the conference.
Wolf, a leading supporter of religious freedom legislation
during his 36 years in Congress, now works closely with the 21st Century
Wilberforce Initiative, an organization that raises awareness of religious
freedom violations around the world.
Wolf described visits to Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, and China
where he encountered first-hand the tragic consequences of persecution by
repressive regimes and those motivated by religious bigotry and intolerance.
“We need to be clear-eyed about the times in which we live,”
He urged those present to not to allow the persecuted to
become “faceless, nameless victims in distant wars and hard to pronounce prison
The May 24 conference reflects the Adventist Church’s more
than 150-year commitment to defending freedom of religion of belief for all
people, no matter what their faith, said Dwayne Leslie, associate director of church’s
department of public affairs and religious liberty department, which organized
Interest in the conference exceeded expectations, Leslie
said. Plans were originally made for 120 attendees, but registration soon
surpassed that number and reached capacity of 250 people. The tremendous
interest, Leslie said, stemmed largely from the practical, hands-on approach of
“As I talked to people throughout the day, I heard that they
were forming new relationships, discovering new ideas for how to get their
message out, beginning to think in terms of collaborating with others to push
toward shared goals,” he said.
It is this pragmatic, results-focused approach to religious
freedom advocacy that Leslie hopes will be a long-term legacy of the conference.
“The state of religious freedom around the world is clear,”
he said. “But the focus of this Summit was to ask: How can we be better
advocates for religious liberty? How can we be more effective in raising
awareness of discrimination and persecution, and in mobilizing a response? How
do we get our message out and get things done?”
Realizing the vital importance of media outreach, Leslie
drew several prominent journalists into the conversation. E.J Dionne Jr., a renowned
political commentator and syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, was the conference’s second keynote speaker. Dionne
warned against the danger of allowing the current culture wars in the United
States to narrow the understanding of religious freedom issues globally.
“In the international sphere, it’s life or death,” he said.
Other journalists speaking at the conference were Lynn
Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago-Sun
Times; Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune; Doyle McManus,
syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles
Times; and David Cook, Washington bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor. In a wide-ranging panel discussion, they
reflected on the relative lack of media attention for international religious
freedom issues, and offered advice to advocates for more effective media
The 2016 International Religious Liberty Summit was co-sponsored
by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center. It
was funded by Adventist donors who wanted to support and enhance the church’s
religious freedom advocacy efforts. The conference was live-streamed by both
the Newseum and ABC News. Video of the entire conference will be available next
month on the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center website, religiousfreedomcenter.org.