Two Seventh-day Adventist religious liberty advocates were among those invited to participate in a landmark religious freedom summit organized by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.
The event, which began July 24, 2018, was the first ever of its kind, and brought together government officials from some 80 nations, along with an internationally diverse group of religious leaders and non-governmental organization representatives. Together, attendees spent three days listening to firsthand accounts of religious persecution and exploring ways to promote religious freedom as a basic human right.
The event was hosted by Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, who told attendees that “millions of people of all faiths are suffering every day” because of religious persecution, even though religious freedom—expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—is enshrined in international law. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also addressed the group, saying that “tragically, a stunning 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or even banned.”
Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the Adventist world church, and Dwayne Leslie, associate PARL director for legislative affairs, attended the invitation-only event on behalf of the church and sought to bring a uniquely Adventist perspective to current religious freedom challenges.
“Adventists believe that freedom of conscience — the right to believe or not to believe — is a gift from God to every human being, and it’s a right that transcends national or political interests,” explained Diop. He said the church welcomes any initiative that raises awareness about religious freedom challenges, and which brings people together around the issue.
Speakers at the event highlighted hotspots of persecution around the world, from the deadly targeting of Christians in Nigeria to the harsh treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, to the violence against Yazidis in Iraq.
Other speakers gave personal testimonies of the devastating impact of religious persecution. Jacqueline Furnari, daughter of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, currently jailed in Turkey, spoke movingly of her father’s plight and his unwavering faith. Brunson has been in custody since October 2016, charged with aiding a political coup — an accusation he denies.
Jamie Powell, the wife of imprisoned Chinese missionary John Cao, also spoke, describing her husband’s declining health since his arrest in 2017. Cao is serving a seven-year prison sentence in China after being detained in the Myanmar-Chinese border area, where he was helping to build Christian schools.
According to Leslie, the event — known as the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom — aimed to engage attendees to more effectively confront religious freedom challenges. He said breakout sessions throughout the three-day event gave people an opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences, and to form valuable relationships.
“This Ministerial was noteworthy, not just because it brought together such a broad range of people, governments, and organizations to focus on religious freedom,” said Leslie. “It was significant because it signals an intent by the United States to engage with this issue for the long term, and to work with others to generate action globally.”
A document issued on the final day of the event — the “Potomac Declaration”— outlined a series of affirmations, including the statement that “every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith.”
Also released was a Plan of Action, which described concrete steps that nations could take in protecting vulnerable religious minorities and responding to violations of religious freedom.
Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, spoke on the opening day of the Ministerial and explained why the United States is prioritizing this issue. “The lack of religious freedom anywhere is a threat to peace, prosperity, and stability everywhere,” he said. “The right to freedom of religion, and the ability to live according to the dictates of your soul, is under attack in the world. This must change.”
For more than 100 years, the Adventist Church has worked with a variety of organizations and governments to defend and promote religious liberty, explained Diop. “We partner with others to the extent that our values and goals coincide, and this approach informs our attendance at this religious liberty summit and other forums,” he said.