June 3, 2016

African Union’s Deputy Chair Speaks of Sabbath and Other Challenges

A senior African Union official, who is also a Seventh-day Adventist believer, has challenged the international community to step up efforts to track and respond to religious intolerance and sectarian violence.

Erastus J.O. Mwencha Jr., deputy chair of the African Union, told a group of Washington policymakers and thought leaders gathered for the 14
th annual Religious Liberty Dinner that complacency has no place when it comes to defending religious freedom.

“We must take a firm stance — not simply look back on how far we have come but press forward to the mark,” Mwencha said.

Mwencha, who has helped lead Africa’s top pan-national organization for the past eight years, described the state of religious freedom in Africa as a “paradox.” While religious diversity has expanded rapidly on the continent, he said, legal protections for freedom of worship have lagged in many jurisdictions.

In a wide-ranging speech, Mwencha described the tragedy wreaked by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in West Africa, where some 40,000 people have been killed and 2.1 million displaced from their homes. He also spoke of increasing tension in Egypt between Muslims and Coptic Christians, and the 2011 separation of Sudan and South Sudan, as a redrawing of the political map of Africa driven in large part by religious differences.

Mwencha, who has spent more than three decades in leadership roles at various Pan-African organizations, also spoke about his personal stake in the cause of religious freedom. He said his own experience as a person of faith in the public realm has tested his convictions and allowed him to better gauge the progress made in Africa and globally in protecting religious liberty.

“From an early stage in my career, I vowed not to compromise on my religious convictions, including keeping the Sabbath,” Mwencha said.

Although this stance sometimes put him at odds with his colleagues and superiors, Mwencha said that “standing firm has allowed me to demonstrate to others the importance of staying true to one’s beliefs.”

“It has also shown me how people can be inherently good and understanding in allowing each other to practice their religion freely,” he said.

The Religious Liberty Dinner, held May 24 at the Newseum in downtown Washington, brought together ambassadors, members of Congress, officials from the U.S. State and Justice departments, faith leaders, and representatives of the religious freedom advocacy community. The annual event is jointly organized by
Liberty magazine, the North American Religious Liberty Association, the International Religious Liberty Association, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In a brief speech to attendees, Ganoune Diop, director of public affairs and religious liberty for the Adventist world church, explained why the church commits significant resources to promoting freedom for people of different faiths, or of no faith at all.

Diop called freedom of religion or belief one of the most profound expressions of what it means to be human and a“right to self-determination regarding one’s deepest identity. He warned that the concept of religious freedom shouldn’t be reduced to the one-dimensional idea of just freedom to believe or to worship” Instead, Diop said, it is a multi-faceted, foundational freedom that supports many other civil freedoms.

“Religious freedom presupposes freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of choice, and freedom of expression,” Diop said.

He said it also encompasses freedom of assembly, the right to own property devoted to worship, and the right to display religious signs and symbols.

Melissa Reid, executive director of North American Religious Liberty Association, has been one of the key organizers of the event for more than a decade, and she says the dinner has become a Capitol Hill tradition.

“These are individuals — public officials, political leaders, representatives from faith groups and advocacy organizations — who in the regular course of business in Washington would rarely come together,” she said. “Yet each year they meet here to acknowledge and celebrate religious freedom as one of our nation’s most fundamental civic values.”

Reid said that, for her, a highlight of this year’s dinner was the attendance of some 50 guests from across North America, including attorneys, religious liberty directors, and interested lay people.

Two people were honored at this year’s dinner for their work in advancing the cause of religious freedom. David Lopez, general counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, received the National Award for Religious Freedom for his “outstanding and consistent advocacy of civil rights, religious rights, and employment rights throughout a remarkable legal and government career of service." Lopez heads the commission’s litigation program nationwide, and oversaw 
the progress of its religious accommodation case, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., decided last year by the Supreme Court.

Also honored was Brian Grim, who received the International Award for his work to educate businesses and governments on the economic benefits of protecting religious freedom. In 2014 Grim left his position as a lead researcher at the Pew Research Center to become founding president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. The organization is founded on the proposition that “religious freedom is good for business and business is good for religious freedom.”

In his acceptance speech, Grim spoke about his partnership with Adventists in promoting religious freedom in many different places around the world and he thanked the church for its advocacy work.

Grim also described the role corporations can play in generating positive social change, and he singled out Sanitarium Health Food Company, an Adventist-owned corporation based in Australia whose mission encompasses more than simply generating profit. Grim praised Sanitarium’s partnership with local churches and other community organizations in promoting public health, especially for socially disadvantaged groups in Australia.

The Religious Liberty Dinner capped a day-long 
International Religious Liberty Summit, also held at the Newseum.