Unification News for May 1998

Religious Freedom and the New Millennium

by Alex Colvin-Washington, DC

Form April 17 to April 19, 142 religious leaders, scholars, human rights activists, and government officials gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington DC to engage in penetrating dialogue and discussion on the theme "Religious Freedom and the New Millennium." The conference, hosted by the International Coalition for Religious Freedom and cosponsored by The Washington Times Foundation, afforded participants from 45 nations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America an opportunity to review the state of religious freedom in the world, examine common concerns, and formulate strategies to for achieving religious freedom throughout the globe in the 21st century.

The conference began on Friday evening with a reception. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation as guests relaxed and exchanged greetings. Some had traveled form as far as Japan, Uzbekistan, the CIS, and the Philippines. Perhaps even more significantly, the group represented a wide variety of religious traditions, ranging from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity, to Islam, to Buddhism and Shintoism. Some participants came from religious organizations with millennial histories, while others were members of new religious movements. The gathering was truly a microcosm of our planet’s global culture, yet from the start, these individuals, grounded in faith and united in a common commitment to freedom, related to one another in a spirit of friendliness and openness.

The reception was followed by a welcoming banquet. Mr. Dan Fefferman, ICRF Executive Director, acted as the emcee for the conference. After dinner, Dr. Joseph Paige, the former President of Shaw Divinity School greeted the participants with welcoming remarks. Dr. Paige encouraged the participants to explore the issues and engage in healthy dialogue. Following Dr. Paige’s address, the audience was treated to a stirring address by Dr. Franklin Littell from Temple University in which he stated his concern about developments in Western Europe and encouraged participants to strive to establish the absolute right of religious freedom, not merely to accept tolerance on the part of the state.

The Opening Plenary Session set before the participants several themes which set the tone for the discussions which were to follow. Mr. Dong Moon Joo, the President of The Washington Times Foundation espoused the goal of a world in which every nation enjoys religious freedom, a world in which people are free to follow and express the dictates of their conscience in pursuing religious truth. His remarks were followed by a profound discussion of the need for "deep dialogue" between people of different religious and cultural views by Dr. Leonard Swidler, the founder of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. The keynote speaker for the plenary session was Nobel Laureate President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. Dr. Arias discussed the relationship between religious freedom and other human rights and examined some of the serious problems facing the world today.

Following the opening plenary session a panel addressed the conference on the "Present State of Religious Freedom." Dr. Charles Brunner from the University of Graz in Austria noted the trend in a number of Western European countries discriminating against smaller religious groups labeled "sects," and gave a brief analysis of a recently passed Austrian law on religions. Peter Juviler, a professor at Bard College, examined the state of religious freedom in the CIS, the states of the former Soviet Union. Brad Dacus from the Pacific Justice Institute covered North America and the Caribbean. Nina Shea discussed the situation in the Middle East, with particular emphasis on the situation in the Sudan, where Christians are being sold in slave markets. Mark Sigmon, from the Christian Mission network talked about religious freedom in Africa. Religious freedom in Asia, and particularly China, was presented by Michael Young from Columbia University. Religious freedom in Latin America was discussed by Rev. Julio Millan from the Interdenominational Evangelical Federation in Venezuela.

In this overview, several areas of concern emerged which were to be discussed throughout the conference. Attention was focused on the Sudan, where the Christian minority in the south is experiencing horrendous persecution in an attempt by the northern dominated government to Islamicize the country. Likewise, China was a focus of concern. Here the government has implemented a policy seeking to control religious activity so that it does not conflict with government policy. People are free to participate in government recognized religions while unauthorized religionists are harassed and, in some cases imprisoned. A third theme which aroused considerable concern is the trend in many countries to declare certain religious groups to be "sects" or "cults," to deny their religious authenticity, and to deprive them of their constitutional rights. This has been particularly strong in the German and French speaking countries of Western Europe, but has also emerged in certain Latin American countries - especially Venezuela - and even in the United States. It was registered with concern that just days before this conference convened, the Maryland legislature passed a resolution calling for a task force to study "cult" activities on university campuses.

After this general overview, the conference broke up into three committees for a more focused look at specific religious freedom issues and cases. In each committee, a series of papers were heard and discussed providing participants with a broad range of views and an opportunity to ask questions and share ideas. Over the next two days each committee met for three sessions discussing (1) Religious Freedom: Past, Present and Future; (2) the Character of Religious Freedom, and (3) the Battle for Religious Freedom.

These meetings constituted the meat of the conference. In all, 8 committee meetings were held and 24 papers presented. The presenters came from a variety of backgrounds: scholars, reporters, columnists, activists, ministers, lawyers, psychologists, etc. The sessions covered theoretical issues such as the relationship between religious freedom and democracy, practical cases such as the restrictive Law on Religions in Russia, and current legislative initiatives including the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act now before the US Congress and the movement for parental choice in education. The schedule was intense but every session was well attended as participants took advantage of the opportunity to share and learn from each other.

Saturday’s luncheon speaker was Rev. Don Argue from the National Association of Evangelicals. Rev. Argue was one of three American religious leaders who recently visited China to examine the state of religious freedom. He was accompanied in his journey by a prominent Jewish leader and a Roman Catholic. They were invited to China by the Chinese government. Before accepting, the delegation wanted to be sure that they would not be presented with only a series of "Potemkin Villages." They did their best to inform themselves before traveling to China and to raise tough issues and questions with Chinese officials. They also managed to communicate with a number of "unauthorized believers." While, naturally, one short visit to such a vast country could not provide definitive or conclusive answers, the trip provided clear evidence that China is sensitive to the issue of religious freedom.

One of the highlights of the conference was an open forum on Saturday evening. Members of a numerous faiths gave testimony of violations of religious freedom which their members were facing in various parts of the world. Individuals representing Evangelicals, the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, Scientologists, Pentecostals, the Unification Church, and others shared first hand testimony with the gathered delegates.

On Sunday, Rev. Punter from Antigua led an ecumenical worship service. Those gathered sang traditional American hymns. Rev. Punter read from the Bible and shared a brief homily on the unity of believers. He noted that while many of us experience harassment or discrimination for our belief, and we should be vigilant to maintain and preserve our liberty, we should also remember, pray for, and do what we can to assist those who are in situations where they are being imprisoned, tortured, or killed because of their faith. The congregation watched a video on the sufferings of persecuted groups and Rev. Punter led the worshippers in a moving prayer for those who are suffering extreme persecution.

After a final session of the individual committees, delegates regathered for the closing plenary session. A rapporteur for each committee provided a summary of each committee’s presentations and discussions for the general session. ICRF President, Bruce Casino, concluded the formal conference proceedings with closing remarks.

The events of the weekend ended with a Farewell Banquet providing participants with an opportunity to continue their discussions. Addresses, phone numbers, and email were exchanged as people determined to maintain contact with new found friends. As the meal ended, groups spilled over into the hotel lobby. For hours delegates continued to seek each other out for last minute conversations before parting. Nobody seemed to want to leave. A real bond had been formed.

The first ICRF conference provided a good start in assessing the problems and clarifying the goals of religious freedom throughout the world. It has also laid the groundwork for a united network of concerned champions for religious freedom. Throughout the conference, participants expressed their gratitude to ICRF as well as their desire to work together and participate in future events. For those interested in exploring the contents of presented papers, ICRF is planning to publish the conference proceedings. More information on ICRF, religious freedom issues, and on this conference can be obtained on ICRF’s website at http://www.religiousfreedom.com. 

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