World Religious Freedom Conference Tackles Tough Issues
Avoid secular society’s lead, speaker says.
Mark A. Kellner, news editor, and Bettina Krause, IRLA communication director, reporting from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Addressing nearly 900 delegates and guests at the Seventh World Congress of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), Denton Lotz, a noted Baptist minister and IRLA president, summarized the purpose of this three-day event: “We’re here today because we believe that freedom of religion is basic to all human rights.”
That view, sadly, is not shared in many parts of the world, something Lotz said made holding the sessions even more important.
“It’s incumbent upon us to work together so that we live together in harmony and concord,” Lotz said to the audience of leaders from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other communities. “We don’t need religious wars.”
That violence against believers remains a problem was evident from a session-opening video presentation noting the death sentences pronounced—but not yet carried out—on Christians in Pakistan and Iran on charges of “blasphemy,” and the assassinations of Pakistani officials Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, minorities minister. Also cited was the extreme religious repression found in North Korea.
While the main congress theme, “Secularism and Religious Freedom—Conflict or Partnership?” may seem far removed from lands where persecution is active, Lotz took a different view.
“Most people worldwide suffer from a lack of religious freedom. Seventy percent of the world lives in places of religious repression,” he said.
Speaking to an audience that included Seventh-day Adventists, Mennonites, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, and Scientologists, among others, IRLA secretary general John Graz noted that the world congress is a multifaceted event.
“This congress is about religious freedom, but it is not a religious event,” Graz said. “We are all here together. We represent different faiths, different religions, and different churches. We are different; but we are respectful of each other.”
During the congress speakers and delegates attempted to negotiate the challenges of a world that is increasingly hostile to a variety of religious expression in the public square. While standing for separation of church and state, Lotz issued a call for religion to avoid following a secular society’s lead.
“I believe that allowing secularism to define what a religion believes is the greatest challenge to religious freedom,” Lotz told delegates. “When we allow the secularization of our faith to transcend the transcendent, it loses its meaning,” he added.
According to Lotz, “religion will die when it no longer focuses on God, but only on autonomous man. Religion will thrive when it focuses on God.”
In a statement read to delegates, the country’s president, Leonel Fernández Reyna, offered “a most cordial welcome to the Dominican Republic, a land of freedom. The Dominican Republic is a place of freedom for Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths.”
In his April 27, 2012, keynote, Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, challenged believers to grasp the opportunities for open discourse that a secular state preserves.
Although acknowledging the inevitable conflict between the values of believers and that of secular culture, he said: “We have to accept this tension as part of a free society. We have to accept the challenges and find appropriate responses through God’s leading.”
Wilson drew a distinction between “radical” or “extreme” secularism, which seeks to exclude religion from the public sphere, and “secular governance,” which remains neutral between religions and protects the religious freedom rights of minorities.
“If intolerant and ideological secularism attacks our religious values, we have to stand up for them with conviction,” he said. Wilson cited examples in which secularism has been taken too far, including attempts to prohibit Muslims from wearing headscarves to public school, or to mandate the provision of abortions by institutions that reject the practice as a matter of conscience.
However, Wilson also said that people of faith should reject the temptation to see a “religious state” as an acceptable alternative to secular governance.
He said his lifelong passion for promoting religious liberty has its roots in memories of his father, Neal Wilson, a former world church leader who often spent hours with government officials explaining the value of freedom of conscience.