May 8, 2014

White House Official Stresses Commonalities at Religious Liberty Dinner


On the day the US Commission on
International Religious Freedom released its 15th annual report, its policy and
research director encouraged a group of religious liberty advocates to redouble
their efforts.

“Sadly our report shows us that the
forces of intolerance are on the move, be they repressive governments or
extremist groups,” said Knox Thames in describing the report monitoring
religious liberty worldwide. 

Thames, who has worked throughout
his career to promote freedom of conscience and has known friends in other
countries killed for speaking out against religious intolerance, described
religious repression and violence as “casting a shadow” to create darkness. The
answer to combat the darkness, he said, was “light,” and invoked the symbol of
a flame, which is used by many faith groups.

“With conditions the way they are
globally, we need to redouble our efforts. … I know that if we all carry
individual lights into dark places, the darkness is pushed back,” he
Thames delivered his remarks on April 30 after receiving the
International Award during the 12th annual Religious Liberty Dinner in
Washington D.C., held this year at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. 

The annual dinner has become a
tradition in the U.S. capital—Thames in a lighter moment called it “the best
religious freedom party in town”—and underscores the case of the hundreds of
millions of people who are mistreated because of their faith, now more than 60
years after the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The annual gathering honors those
who work to protect and promote religious freedom and draws members from the
diplomatic community, U.S. government, religious leaders of various faiths, and
religious freedom advocates. The dinner is jointly sponsored by the IRLA, the
North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA), Liberty magazine and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Attendees also heard from Melissa
Rogers, special assistant to the president and executive director of the White
House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In a keynote
address, Rogers, who is the principal advisor on faith issues to President Barack
Obama and the administration, stressed the need to focus on commonalities in
working for religious freedom in the U.S.

“Americans don’t always agree on
the specific applications of these principles,” Rogers said. “Indeed, it’s when
we have serious areas of disagreement that we ought to double down on trying to
find areas of agreement. Because when we don’t, we are apt to start treating
one another as enemies rather than as opponents on particular issues, we are
apt to miss opportunities where we can work together to do real good for our
neighbors, and we are apt to forget that that which unites us is far greater
than that which divides us.”

Rogers said an example of various
groups finding common ground was in 2009 when President Barack Obama created an
advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, which she
chairs, to examine how government works with religious groups to serve people
in need. The task force, Rogers said, was comprised of advocates for
religious freedom and separation of church and state. She said the group has
helped more clearly define roles of religious organizations as they receive
governmental funding for charity work—beneficiaries receiving federal funds
aren’t required to participate in the religious activities of the provider.
“May we always maintain this country as a place of incredible religious
diversity and remarkable religious cooperation and peace,” Rogers said to end
her speech.

The recipient of this year’s
National Award was Eric W. Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination
in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Recognition was also given to
Seventh-day Adventist Minister Antonio Monteiro, who was jailed for nearly two
years with a blood libel, a case that illustrates numerous people worldwide
suffering for religious reasons.

IRLA Secretary-General John Graz
called religious freedom a gift from God, but a “fragile gift.”
“We can lose
it. The best way to lose religious freedom is to do nothing to promote it and
defend it. … That’s why we have done our best to promote religious freedom
around the world since our association was incorporated in 1893.”

Keynote speakers for the Religious
Liberty Dinner in previous years have included Canada’s Minister of Foreign
Affairs John Baird, former U.S. Secretaries of State and Senators Hillary
Clinton and John Kerry, Senator John McCain, and members of the U.S. House of
Representatives from both major political parties.

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