More than 120 religious liberty leaders and advocates met on August 23 for the closing banquet and awards ceremony of the 9th World Congress of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) in Washington D.C. Attendees reflected on what they learned or reviewed during the event as IRLA leaders called them to recommit to the ongoing work on behalf of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
The day began with a series of presentations at the event venue in Silver Spring, Maryland, on topics such as religious nationalism and religious freedom, current threats to religious liberty, and the importance of engaging in multilateral efforts. After lunch, participants were bussed to downtown Washington, D.C. to visit landmarks relevant to religious freedom for the U.S. and the world.
The August 23 tour included a visit to the National Archives building, where IRLA Congress participants saw the display of the Constitution of the United States, among other key documents for religious liberty. It also included a stop at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. At the end of the tour, participants were invited to participate in the closing banquet at a downtown location just a few blocks from the White House.
Working with the Grassroots
The IRLA presented three awards to religious liberty advocates during its 9th World Congress. Awardees included Ambassador Sam Brownback, co-president of International Religious Freedom Summit and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. He is also a former U.S. senator and congressman and former governor of Kansas. Brownback, who could not attend the banquet, was recognized a day before after a presentation he gave at the event.
According to IRLA, throughout his distinguished career as a statesman and diplomat, Ambassador Brownback has demonstrated a deep commitment to defending the fundamental right of every individual to practice their faith without fear of persecution or discrimination. “His expertise, his compassion, and his interest in learning more are reasons that one of this year’s International Religious Liberty Association Awards is presented to him,” IRLA deputy secretary-general Bill Knott said in introducing the award.
As part of the award presentation at the banquet, participants watched a recorded clip of Brownback’s acceptance of the IRLA award, in which he called on religious liberty advocates to keep working with the grassroots to effect change. “If it doesn’t go grassroots, it’s not going to catch,” he said. “What happens at the higher levels of government has to really be implemented at a localized level.”
The Power of Love
IRLA also recognized the work of trained attorney, diplomat, and editor Bettina Krause, current editor of Liberty magazine and former director of government affairs for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. According to IRLA leaders, Krause was instrumental in building strong, collaborative relationships between the church world headquarters and government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and groups advocating for religious freedom.
“Bettina Krause incarnates a personal dimension of religious freedom, and that is selflessness,” Diop said. “She creates things for other people. And she never talks about her qualifications. She even wrote many things anonymously. But her passion for religious freedom has been absolutely amazing.”
In accepting the award, Krause said that she treasured the time she has spent working with Diop and others on behalf of religious liberty. She quoted from the first issue of Liberty, published in April 1906, where its editor laid out the philosophy that would guide the publication. “ ‘We believe there is no power like the power of love that can rightly compel the human conscience,’ ” Krause read, adding, “It is a simple statement, but I think it does explain why we have come together in the last few days.… We are all bound by a couple of very simple ideas: the sanctity of human freedom, the sacredness of human dignity, and the idea that there is no power like the power of love that can compel the human conscience.… I am honored to count myself a partner and a fellow advocate in this.”
Alleviating Tensions and Promoting Cooperation
Finally, IRLA recognized the work of former secretary general of Religions for Peace Azza Karam, a woman of the Muslim faith who is a member of the U.N. secretary-general’s High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism. According to IRLA, Karam has made significant contributions to various interfaith initiatives.
“As the driving force behind numerous dialogues and forums, she has brought together religious leaders, scholars, and practitioners from around the globe to engage in constructive conversations, transcending boundaries that once seemed insurmountable.… Her involvement in practical peace initiatives has made a significant impact on alleviating tensions and promoting cooperation in regions affected by interreligious strife.”
Diop, who called Karam “a gift to the whole of humanity,” acknowledged her work for “bringing people and nations together.” Thanks to her dedicated work, Diop added, “now world leaders from all faiths can at least hear about religious freedom.… I am deeply grateful for your efforts.”
Karam thanked IRLA leaders for what she called “this incredible honor and privilege.” Karam also called the attention of the banquet attendees to the plight of many millions of Muslims “who are extraordinarily attacked from among their own community and from those who profess their own faith, from others around who cannot understand the atrocities that seem to be taking place in the name of their faith, and from those around them who always resented this other religion that seems to be growing.”
Visibly moved, Karam begged each religious liberty advocate present “to see Muslims and Islam beyond the nasty headlines; to see every Muslim as a believer, and … to be just a little bit kinder to many who would never hurt a soul but whose religion is being hurt so badly.”
A Part of Who We Are
After the awards ceremony, General Conference vice president Audrey Andersson called attendees to take all they learned during the event and incorporate it in their everyday life and professional practice. “We were just discussing at our table,” she acknowledged, “how we are going to make all this part of who we are and a reality in all of our interactions.” The key, she said, is committing to “giving everyone the freedom to make their choice with freedom of conscience.”
Diop agreed. In his closing remarks, he reiterated the key role of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. “Humans have been created in the image of God,” he reminded attendees, “and this includes freedom of conscience. This is why, if someone is deprived of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, it means that that person is deprived of their humanity,” Diop said.
Before the closing prayer, General Conference executive secretary Erton Köhler called leaders and advocates to keep working on behalf of religious liberty. “I hope that you can leave this place with a renewed commitment to be an ambassador of religious liberty,” Köhler said. “As Ambassador Brownback said, ‘for everyone, everywhere, all the time,’ ” he emphasized. “Let us defend religious liberty with all our hearts.”