, public affairs, religious liberty, and communications director, South Pacific Division
Thousands of people from various Christian denominations marched in the capital of Papua New Guinea on Friday in an Adventist-organized celebration of the religious freedom that they enjoy on the South Pacific island nation.
The march capped a major symposium on religious freedom hosted by the Adventist-affiliated International Religious Liberty Association on the campus of Pacific Adventist University and attended by government officials and the leaders of a number of religious faiths.
Leigh Rice, president of the Adventist Church in Papua New Guinea, said Adventists participating in the march were saying “thank you” for a freedom that they don’t take for granted.
“We know many of our members around the world live under enormous pressure,” Rice told a rally following the march in Port Moresby. “How wonderful that this nation grants freedom to us, and not just to us, but to a broad range of religious practices.”
A senior Roman Catholic clergyman, Victor Roche, compared Papua New Guinea with other countries beset with religious violence and illustrated his point by mentioning the 28 Christians, including at least eight Adventists, who were killed by Islamic extremists in Kenya last month.
“We must be thankful,” Roche, secretary-general of the PNG Catholic Bishop Conference, told the crowd. “In PNG if you want to worship on Sunday, we can. If we want to worship on Saturday, we can. If we are Muslim and want to worship on Friday, we can.”
He implored the crowd to pray that the freedom continued unabated.
The International Religious Liberty Association, or IRLA, intends to play a role in securing that freedom by opening a local chapter. The government of Papua New Guinea is giving the new chapter a grant of 10,000 kina ($3,900) to help it get started.
“We need to expand the religious liberty movement in PNG,” Delilah Gore, Papua New Guinea’s minister for community, youth and religion, said in announcing the grant during the religious symposium on Thursday. “Even though PNG is a predominantly Christian nation, we have non-Christian religions coming here. A new chapter of the IRLA will help us peacefully and sustainably manage our growing religious diversity.”
The chapter will be coordinated by Gibbs Selika, deputy chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court and a Seventh-day Adventist. He said he looked forward to learning from other IRLA chapters around the world.
“We can learn from each other, and together we will be strong,” Sir Selika said.
John Graz, president of IRLA and religious liberty director at the world headquarters of the Adventist Church, said that the promotion of religious freedom through strong national chapters was vital in responding to a growth of violent religious extremism and other restrictions on faith.
“We hope that this first chapter in the South Pacific will be the first of many in the region,” Graz said.
Bienvenido V. Tejano,Philippine ambassador to Papua New Guinea, spoke passionately to the rally on Friday about the advancement of religious freedom in his own country after Graz instigated a Philippine chapter of the IRLA. Students were barred from taking national exams on any day other than Saturday at the time, and the IRLA chapter aimed to change that.
“Today students have the opportunity to take exams on a day that does not violate their conscience,” Tejano said. “This is the practical difference religious freedom makes.”