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Religious Liberty Summit in D.C. Challenges Advocates


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By Bettina Krause, communication director, International Religious Liberty Association

E.J. Dionne, Jr., renowned political commentator and syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, addresses the IRL Summit audience at the Newseum on May 24.
Photo by Maria Bryk


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 (IRL) 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 — scarce media and political attention given to rising rates of religious discrimination and persecution. Recent studies have estimated that some five billion people globally face religious persecution, and one in three people live in places where religious freedom is severely restricted.

The North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA), which hosts an annual Religious Liberty Summit in D.C., joined the IRL Summit at the Newseum. More than 50 NARLA guests, religious liberty directors and attorneys, enjoyed panel discussions and keynote addresses with a group of about 250.

“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.

Lynn Sweet (center), Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for the Chicago-Sun Times, Clarence Page (far left), Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Doyle McManus (left), syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and David Cook (center right), Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for the Christian Science Monitor, offer advice to religious liberty advocates for more effective media engagement during a panel discussion moderated by Bettina Krause.
Photo by Maria Bryk


“We need to be clear-eyed about the times in which we live,” said Wolf, and he urged those present to not allow the persecuted to become “faceless, nameless victims in distant wars and hard to pronounce prison cells.”

Dwayne Leslie, associate director of the 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, reaching 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. Dionne 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."

IRL Summit attendees enjoy lunch and networking on the Newseum deck before listening to the second keynote address with E.J. Dionne, Jr., Post columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Photo by Maria Bryk


New York based attorney and Adventist Mishael Pine, attending her second NARLA Summit and first IRL Summit, understands this danger — and the need for advocates. "Our churches don’t talk about religious liberty enough, we don’t have enough religious liberty directors," she said. "It’s good to be at a forum like this, it educates us on what religious liberty is all about."
Pine, who is passionate about helping indigent populations, added, "It is important that we work with one another, . . . We may have our freedoms right now, but around the world there are a lot of people who are hurting — we need to be praying for them, and really fighting for freedom."

Other journalists speaking at the summit included 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.

Melissa Reid, NARLA executive director, was pleased with the joint event. "It’s a chance for local members to play an active role in our church’s religious liberty advocacy work," she said.

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.

—Kimberly Luste Maran contributed to this report.

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