In the heart of Silver Spring, Maryland, the world headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventist Church recently played host to a gathering that was, in many ways, a testament to the power of unity in diversity. The International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) celebrated its 130th anniversary with a conference that brought together representatives from a myriad of faith backgrounds, from Mennonites, Muslims, Catholics, Baptists, Jews, to Scientologists. Their shared mission? To advocate for the freedom of belief for everyone, irrespective of their faith or lack thereof.
This event marked the 9th World Conference of the IRLA, continuing the long-standing tradition of Adventist support for religious freedom. The significance of this gathering was not just in its numbers but in its participants’ shared values and commitment.
Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, set the tone for the conference with his opening address. He underscored the intrinsic value of liberty, stating that it plays a pivotal role in preserving our shared humanity. In a world where divisions often seem insurmountable, Wilson's words served as a reminder of the universal values that bind us all.
The conference was graced by several distinguished speakers, each bringing a unique perspective. Ambassador Sam Brownback, with his dual roles as co-president of the International Religious Freedom Summit and former Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, spoke with authority on the global challenges to religious freedom. Rabbi Craig Axler, Rev. Elijah Brown, and César García further enriched the discourse with their insights from their respective faith traditions.
However, amidst the diverse voices, a common concern emerged: the impact of polarization on freedom in today's world. With the rise of both ultra-progressive and ultra-conservative extremes, the very essence of religious freedom is being tested.
Ganoune Diop, Secretary General of IRLA, offered a profound definition of freedom. He described it as the right to express, practice, and share one's beliefs without any form of coercion or manipulation. In his view, this freedom stands tall among all other freedoms and rights. Diop's emphasis on the importance of raising awareness about the freedom of thought and conscience was a clarion call to all attendees. He also championed interfaith dialogue as a potent tool to combat the growing intolerance in the world.
Reverend Olivia McDuff, representing the Church of Scientology International, expressed that religious tolerance is a principle embraced by their church. She pointed out that their creed explicitly states that every individual possesses rights to their religious practices. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, turned tolerance for others’ beliefs into his book The Way to Happiness. In it, he wrote: "Tolerance is a good cornerstone on which to build human relationships. When one views the slaughter and suffering caused by religious intolerance down all the history of Man and into modern times, one can see that intolerance is a very non-survival activity.”
The International Religious Liberty Association: A Legacy of Advocacy and Unity
In the annals of religious freedom advocacy, 1893 stands out as a pivotal moment. It was then that the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) was birthed by the Seventh Day Adventists. Rooted in the Adventist commitment to religious freedom for all, the IRLA has grown to become a beacon for believers and non-believers alike, advocating for the inalienable right of every individual to practice their faith or beliefs without hindrance.
The IRLA's mission is not limited to any single faith or denomination. Instead, it champions the cause of religious freedom for all, irrespective of one's faith, background, or creed. This universal approach has made the IRLA a unique multifaith organization, drawing support and participation from a wide spectrum of religious communities. While its origins are deeply intertwined with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the IRLA's reach and impact extend far beyond any single religious group.
The IRLA's 9th World Conference, recently held, was not merely an event or a routine gathering of like-minded individuals. It was, in essence, a powerful symbol of hope in an increasingly fragmented world. At a time when divisions, both religious and cultural, seem to be deepening, the conference stood as a testament to the possibility of unity amidst diversity. It was a vivid demonstration of how varied faith traditions, with their unique beliefs and practices, can come together under the shared banner of religious freedom.
The attendees, drawn from various religious backgrounds, were not just passive participants. Their presence was an active affirmation of a shared commitment to the cause of religious freedom. This collective dedication, transcending individual beliefs and doctrines, is a poignant reminder of the enduring power of shared values. It underscores the idea that, despite our differences, the human spirit's quest for freedom, understanding, and unity remains unyielding.
In a world where religious freedom is often under threat, the IRLA and its World Conferences serve as a rallying point. They remind us that the fight for religious liberty is not the domain of any single faith but a collective endeavor that speaks to the very core of our shared humanity.