As religious freedom continues to deteriorate around the world, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has brought together a broad range of advocacy organizations and public leaders to consider ways to drive the issue higher on the public agenda.
The 2016 International Religious Liberty Summit, held May 24 at the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center in downtown Washington, D.C., focused on what has become a key concern for religious freedom advocates—the relatively scarce media and political attention given to rising rates of religious discrimination and persecution. The Pew Research Center estimates that some 5 billion people globally face significant religious restrictions, and one in three people live in places where religious freedom is severely restricted.
“There are cries of the persecuted that we are refusing to hear,” said former United States Congressman Frank Wolf, one of the keynote speakers at the Summit. Wolf, who was a leading supporter of religious freedom legislation during his 36 years in Congress, now works closely with the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, an organization that raises awareness of religious freedom violations around the world.
At the Summit, Wolf described visits to Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan and China where he encountered, first-hand, the tragic consequences of persecution by repressive regimes and those motivated by religious bigotry and intolerance.
“We need to be clear-eyed about the times in which we live,” said Wolf, and he urged those present to not to allow the persecuted to become “faceless, nameless victims in distant wars and hard to pronounce prison cells.”
Dwayne Leslie, associate director of Adventist Church’s Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department, organized the Summit, and said the event reflected the Church’s more than 150-year commitment to defending freedom of religion of belief for all people, no matter what their faith.
According to Leslie, interest in the Summit exceeded expectations—plans were originally made for 120 attendees, but registration soon surpassed that number, and reached capacity of 250 people. The tremendous interest, Leslie believes, stemmed largely from the practical, hands-on approach of the Summit.
“As I talked to people throughout the day,” says Leslie, “I heard that they were forming new relationships, discovering new ideas for how to get their message out, beginning to think in terms of collaborating with others to push toward shared goals.”
It is this pragmatic, results-focused approach to religious freedom advocacy that Leslie hopes will be a long-term legacy of the Summit.
“The state of religious freedom around the world is clear,” he said. “But the focus of this Summit was to ask: How can we be better advocates for religious liberty? How can we be more effective in raising awareness of discrimination and persecution, and in mobilizing a response? How do we get our message out and get things done?”
Realizing the vital importance of media outreach, Leslie drew several prominent journalists into the conversation. E.J Dionne, Jr., renowned political commentator and syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, was the Summit’s second keynote speaker. He warned against the danger of allowing the current culture wars in the United States to narrow the understanding of religious freedom issues globally.
“In the international sphere,” he said, “it's life or death."
Other journalists speaking at the Summit were Lynn Sweet, Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for the Chicago-Sun Times, Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Doyle McManus, syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and David Cook, Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for the Christian Science Monitor. In a wide-ranging panel discussion, they reflected on the relative lack of media attention for international religious freedom issues, and offered advice to advocates for more effective media engagement.
The 2016 International Religious Liberty Summit was co-sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and by the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center. It was funded by Adventist donors who wanted to support and enhance the Church’s religious freedom advocacy efforts. The Summit was live-streamed by both the Newseum and ABC News. Video of the entire Summit will be available next month on the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center website: religiousfreedomcenter.org