The Congress by the words of the speakers

The Congress by the words of the speakers

Bern, May 1, 2012 [CD-EUDnews/AR]. In his address to the 7th World Congress, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, Robert Seiple, former United States Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, spoke passionately about the “complicity of the religious establis

May 01, 2012 | CD-EUD/AR Pictures A.Oliver

Bern, May 1, 2012 [CD-EUDnews/AR]. In his address to the 7th World Congress, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, Robert Seiple, former United States Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, spoke passionately about the “complicity of the religious establishment in advancing secularism. "My thesis is straight-forward,” he said. “People of faith have contributed to the secularization of the West. We have massively misunderstood what it means to be ‘in the world, but not of the world." Seiple blamed the church for succumbing to the “selfish cult of material success." He also pointed to the religious establishment’s tendency to seek society’s approval. He cited examples of people of faith being willing to compromise their “strongest beliefs and oldest creeds” in the name of tolerance and pluralism. 

Sonia Garcia, assistant director of the Office of Religious Affairs in Cuba, described the current religious liberties enjoyed in her country and the challenges in further protecting religious rights. “Religions which are defenders of moral and ethical principles today, more than ever, have a great challenge to secure a better world, where respect for diversity can strengthen unity, love and the development of peoples,” said Garcia.

Paulo Tort Ortega, director general of religious affairs in Mexico, affirmed his government's commitment to protecting the religious freedom rights of its citizens. “In Mexico, we have separation of church and state and there is freedom of belief and freedom of worship,” said Ortega. “However, we see these freedoms to be part of two rights that fall under religious liberty.

In his presentation, Knox Thames, Director of Policy and Research for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), acknowledged the current global crisis in religious freedom—the results of which he has seen first-hand through his visits to many different countries representing the US Department of State and through his liaison work with the United Nations and the OSCE. “I have seen that the efforts of individuals, faith groups and non-governmental organizations can save lives, change laws, and expand religious freedom,” said Knox. He warned that ongoing advocacy is difficult and results are never assured. He advised advocates to act with discernment and persistence, and to reject the temptation to exaggerate their cause or to speak without knowing all the facts.

Amjad B. Shammout, a prominent human rights advocate based in Amman, Jordan, presented a Muslim perspective on religious freedom. Shammout, a lawyer and former judge in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, left that work to establish and direct the Arab Bridge Center for Development and Human Rights. This non-profit organization aims to foster moderation, with the avoidance of violence, to bring about change. It promotes respect and understanding among people of all religions. Shammout underscored the need to work with young people in order to shape attitudes of peace and tolerance rather than violence. In conversation, he becomes passionate about human rights in regard to women, children, and others who are marginalized or ill-treated. “I have a vision,” he says. “It is that throughout the entire world people will be treated with justice and fairness.

Shaherya Gill, one of the more than 900 people from around the world who have traveled to Punta Cana, understands the challenges to religious freedom in Pakistan—he grew up there. Now working as an associate counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, he helps to oversee religious freedom cases in the country of his birth. Among the biggest challenges to religious liberty in Pakistan are the so-called Blasphemy Laws. These laws prohibit any action or words against Islam, including defiling a place of worship or a sacred object, defiling the Quran or demeaning the prophet Mohammad. Punishment for such offenses includes fines, imprisonment and even the death penalty. Gill noted that since these laws were passed about 30 years ago there have been about 1,000 charges against Christians in Pakistan. “Worse still,” says Gill.

“Everyone deserves basic human rights, at the core of which is the right to believe and express your beliefs freely,” said Amireh Al-Haddad, North American Religious Liberty Association leader for Southern United States and the discussion leader. She emphasized that regardless of the unique challenges within each culture, raising awareness of rights issues that particularly impact women is key to making small strides. “The things we take for granted, like driving or going to the store, aren’t allowed [for women] in some societies,” said Al-Haddad. In some countries of Africa, she added, it's much worse for women. In addition to restrictions on basic freedoms, there is also the practice of female genital mutilation and a high preval

ence of domestic violence—although these abuses are often regarded in these societies as protection for women. 

Ted Wilson, the leader of the 17-million- member Seventh-day Adventist Church, 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."

César Pina Toribio, Secretary of State for the Dominican Republic, told the attendees that his nation shares their commitment to preserving and promoting freedom of religion. He congratulated the Congress on its success, and thanked the organizers for their work in raising awareness about the vital role that freedom of conscience plays in building a strong, peaceful nation.
Regional IRLA leaders presented a compelling picture of the human cost of religious intolerance during a Tuesday evening presentation on the religious freedom crisis in the countries of Nigeria and North Korea. The meeting opened with a series of violent video images from Nigeria—bombed buildings, countless injured and murdered men, women and children, homes and families destroyed, churches demolished.

Senator Charles Schultz of Colombia reported on the strides made toward religious liberty among faith groups in Colombia during the past two decades. “The model of secular state is the best one for the protection of human and civil rights,” stated Schultz as he reported on the history of secularism and its benefits in the 32 states or provinces in Colombia. “There is a great need to unite further in defending religious liberty, as well as using legal instruments and procedural guarantees for human rights,” he challenged. “We must remember that without rights there is no freedom, because the human being is a slave to his emotions and passions.”

Judge D Amjad Shammout gave an islamic perspective on religious freedom. “Freedom of religion in its Islamic context implies that non-Muslims are not compelled to convert to Islam, nor are they hindered from practicing their own religious rights,” said Shammout. “Many of the Qur'anic verses make clear that all people are free to choose the faith they want.” He also addressed the issue of apostasy in Islam—a concept he says has been often misunderstood and mis-applied. He concluded that the death penalty for apostasy was not prescribed by the Qur'an.

Dr. Larry Miller, secretary of the Global Christian Forum, offered an example of the integration of Christian values in the search for religious liberty. He recounted a story from 1569 of the Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems of the Netherlands, who was fleeing a police officer and both were on a frozen lake. The pursuer fell in and was about to drown; Willems turned around and rescued the man, even though this meant Williems' arrest and eventual execution.

Reverend Neville Callam General Secretary of the World Baptist Alliance (WBA), told to the attendees that “the resolution of the tension between religious liberty and secularism is more easily described than achieved.” Speaking on the theme of the day—“How to Live Together”—he cited as a part of the problem, the increasingly pluralistic nature of society. Society is multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, with people who speak varying languages, and from different backgrounds and upbringings. “All this,” said Callam, “makes it difficult to agree on a minimal core of what is acceptable to all.”

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