A 30,000-seat stadium filled with church leaders, government officials, religious liberty advocates, and Adventist church members was the venue to celebrate religious freedom in Rwanda and the African continent on September 15, 2018. The “Religious Freedom for All” festival, which took place in the Amahoro National Stadium in Kigali, the country’s capital, crowned the proceedings of the 3rd All Africa Congress and Festival of Religious Liberty, which had begun two days earlier.
The Sabbath (Saturday) morning festival was attended mostly by Rwandan Seventh-day Adventist church members but also by religious liberty delegates from close to 30 countries, representatives from human rights organizations, government officials, African scholars, and African entrepreneurs. The special guests included the Minister in the Office of the President of Rwanda, Judith Uwizeye; Rwandan Minister of Justice Johnston Busingye; and Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya David Maraga, who is a Seventh-day Adventist.
The five-hour event included a Religious Liberty Parade of Pathfinder clubs and several other church ministries; a music concert featuring a dozen musical groups and a brass band; religious liberty speeches; and thanksgiving prayers.
“We have come to thank God because He chose to create us with liberty of conscience,” said Joel Okindoh, International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) secretary general for the East-Central Africa region, in his welcoming remarks. “But we have also come to understand better why God created humans free.”
In a Celebratory Mood
East-Central Africa church region president Blasious Ruguri emphasized in his comments the proactive approach of the festival. “This is a celebration — a moment to be happy and in a celebratory mood.”
Ruguri explained the unique aspects of the Kigali celebration. “This event has brought us together as children of Africa to discuss this important principle of religious liberty,” he said. In that sense, he added, it couldn’t be held in a better country.
“[Rwanda] has given us such a practical experience about the importance of religious liberty,” Ruguri said. “We witnessed what can be the outcome when there is no tolerance.”
In his keynote message, IRLA general secretary Ganoune Diop emphasized the regional importance of Rwanda regarding the defense and support of religious freedoms. “Rwanda is intentional about promoting this human right [of religious liberty]” he said. “And Rwanda has become a model of respect for the common good.”
Not a Union of Churches
Diop explained that the festival was a celebration for another reason. It is a moment to thank people from different confessions, he said.
“We don’t take religious liberty for granted,” Diop said. “History shows us otherwise.”
In briefly reviewing the long history of religious disagreements and wars, Diop said that respect and peace among churches is something to celebrate.
At the same time, Diop made clear that religious liberty does not lead to a union of churches, a situation generally referred to as ecumenism. “Religious liberty is not an eradication of differences or the accommodation of all beliefs to a common denominator.”
In the same vein, Diop emphasized that religious liberty is not syncretism, or a combining of beliefs. “It does not imply diluting one’s beliefs and messages,” he said.
Of course, said Diop, churches can partner to do good, in initiatives to alleviate suffering and to help people in need of assistance. Churches can work together in their intersection of values, promoting solidarity.
The Right to Believe Differently
In his message, Diop also explained that tolerance in itself might not be enough to promote religious peace and understanding. “Tolerance, yes, but not out of a sense of superiority, with a condescending, patronizing attitude,” he explained. “When we embrace religious liberty, we give up criminalizing other people.”
The key implication of the practice of religious liberty, Diop said, is to remember that “others have full right to believe differently.”
In a more personal vein, Diop said he is not apologetic about his personal religious journey. “I am a Seventh-day Adventist,” he said. “I believe in the sovereignty of God and in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for my salvation.” He added, “Yes, I believe He is coming to finally fulfill the promise of creating a new world with total justice and peace. That’s my hope!”
At the same time, Diop said, upholding his beliefs makes him reflect on how to respect people who believe differently. And it is something that includes every human being without exception. “My responsibility is to love my neighbor as myself because human beings are sacred temples of the Holy Spirit,” he emphasized. “Beyond any title or position, every human being has been created in the image of God.”
Diop concluded by quoting the Bible book of Galatians, where Paul the apostle wrote, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (5:1, NKJV.) “Let’s never forget that God is the God of freedom,” he said.