June 9, 2016

Adventists Rethink How to Defend Religious Freedom in South America

With religious intolerance growing in Brazil, about 500 Seventh-day Adventists gathered on the São Paulo campus of Brazil Adventist University (Unasp) to learn how they could defend religious freedom in their own communities.

The training session was the first of its kind and marks a shift in church strategy by introducing a more practical approach to the issue, said Hélio Carnassale, director of the religious liberty department of the Adventist Church’s South American Division, which organized the event.

Carnassale said the training session also would serve as a model for Brazil and the other seven South American countries of the division.

“This is the first big event for training Seventh-day Adventist religious liberty leaders,” Carnassale said. “This is a change in strategy that prioritizes more effective work at the local level. Then we will celebrate this practical activity with religious freedom festivals. One without the other does not work.”

For the past several years, Adventist leaders have organized huge festivals in various countries to thank the authorities for protecting religious freedoms. Numerous church-led forums and congresses celebrating religious freedom have been held in Brazil alone.

Even though Brazil has few restrictions on religious freedom, according to a ranking from the Pew Research Center, an increase in religious intolerance has been measured in recent years. For example, a human rights department hotline set up in 2011 for people to call to report human rights violations has seen complaints relating to religious intolerance jump from 15 in the first year to 555 in 2015.

Damaris Moura, chair of the Law and Religious Liberty Committee of the São Paulo branch of the Brazilian Bar Association, cautioned during a 10th-anniversary celebration of her committee on June 2 that Brazil was witnessing an “escalation in religious intolerance.”

Moura, who is an Adventist believer, told the church training session on June 4 that she was especially worried that the Internet has contributed to a spread of religiously fueled hate speech.

“Religious liberty is essential for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to fulfill its purpose,” Moura said.

She said Adventists could take several practical steps to help curb religious intolerance online. She said they first could write to Internet providers with a request to remove religiously motivated hate speech from their servers. Adventist also could lobby national lawmakers to support a proposed amendment that would oblige Internet providers to remove religiously motivated hate speech.

Moura said the amendment should not be viewed as an attack on free speech but as a way to nurture respect among religious groups and avoid conflict. She noted that Brazilian Internet providers already are required to remove child pornography automatically and said a similar attitude should be adopted toward religious intolerance.

To protect religious freedom, Adventists also must develop a relationship with civil and religious authorities that allows them to celebrate and defend the right to worship and profess their faith, Carnassale said.

This relationship must not be understood as ecumenism because beliefs should not be discussed at any point, he said.