BY BILL KNOTT, with reporting by Kristina Malarek, a communication and international development major at Avondale College in Cooranbong, Australia, and Debby Knott, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty specialist at the General Conference.
rom the top of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, you can see a very long way on a sun-washed February day.
Your eyes run irresistibly south down the long spine of the hooked peninsula to Cape Point, drawn by the illusion that you can glimpse the edge of the world, or at least the end of the continent. Somewhere, 50 kilometers or more away, storms gather over False Bay as the currents of the cold Atlantic collide with warmer waters from the Indian Ocean off Cape Agulhas. Rain clouds, at first about the size of a man’s hand, distend out over the swells, cycling water back into the source from which it sprang.
From the top of Table Mountain you seem to see the world in macro view—nations, destinies, conflicts, creeds—the sweep of generations, histories, voyages, and dreams. It is heady stuff, which is why more than 2 million visitors a year ride the rapid cable car to the top or pick their way up the steep slopes.
It may also explain why organizers chose the city sprawled at the base of Table Mountain as the site of this year’s Sixth World Congress of the International Religious Liberty Association—because the sweep of history, change, and politics has propelled the nation at the southern tip of Africa to the forefront of the world’s consciousness for more than 20 years. In some big way, the nations of the world sense that they are all—all of them—implicated in the great experiment that is the new South Africa, a roiling exercise of democracy and traditions, races and reconciliations, rights and righteousness.
“It was in this very city of Cape Town, on Robben Island, not far from here, where the fathers and leaders of this nation, like Nelson Mandela, served elongated prison terms under the yoke of human oppression,” Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division president Paul Ratsara reminded more than 600 international delegates on the Congress’s opening day. “And yet in their physical bondage, they remained free because they were free in mind and soul. All manner of suffering inflicted upon them only served to strengthen their resolve to persist in the fight against human oppression and for the advancement and protection of individual rights. . . . Such was their conviction and resolve toward liberation that they even declared, like Steve Bantu Biko, that ‘it is better to die for a living cause than to live for a dying cause.’”
The Adventist leader’s welcome, recalling more than four decades of oppression experienced by the country’s majority population under racial apartheid, was echoed on the Congress’s second day by the Muslim premier of the Western Cape Province, Ebrahim Rasool, who called South Africa “one massive laboratory and experiment in humanity.” Rasool, a member of the African National Congress and the leader of the province government since 2002, described the last decade in South Africa as “an experiment in which we try to push the limits of reconciliation without sweeping under the carpet the difficulties of the human existence. . . . We try to take those things that have been uncomfortable in our past, hold them up for scrutiny, argue about them, debate them, but allow at the same time our common humanity to hold us together even while we deal with the uncomfortable parts of the past.”
Rasool’s allusion to South Africa’s arduous but successful eight-year “Truth and Reconciliation” process for dealing with the crimes and atrocities committed under apartheid was greeted with thunderous applause by the delegates filling almost every available seat in the Cape Town International Convention Center. Throughout the intensive three-day event February 27-March 1, delegates cheered on ambassadors, government leaders, religious leaders, and advocates of freedom who addressed the theme of “Combating Religious Hatred Through Freedom to Believe” in 15 plenary sessions and another 15 workshops focused on preserving freedom of conscience around the world.
“Africa has long been very open to many kinds of religions,” observes John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association, and director of the office of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the worldwide Adventist Church, “but there is more recent evidence of a surge in religious intolerance.” Graz, whose work with IRLA includes documenting abuses of religious freedom and educating government leaders and international organizations about matters of conscience, confirms that the choice to hold the organization’s World Congress in Africa was strategic. In some parts of Africa today, he notes, “it is very difficult to have religious freedom.” According to Graz, Algeria, Eritrea, and Somalia are difficult places for religious minorities, and several years of clashes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria have highlighted the problem of forcing non-Muslim citizens to live and work under Muslim Sharia law.
The decision to invite government leaders and representatives of many world faiths was also strategic, Graz notes. “The way for us to make a change is by including speakers and experts from various religious backgrounds defending religious freedom,” he says. “They all have different approaches, but all favor religious freedom. It is also a great example for the public because they can see that people from different backgrounds pull together in a peaceful environment, talking about something that can be very sensitive.”
Major speakers for the IRLA
World Congress included Dr. Jose Camilo Cardoso, general director of the National Registry of Religions for the Republic of Argentina; Dr. J. L. Nkomo, Speaker of the House of Assembly of the Parliament of Zimbabwe; and Ambassador Robert Seiple, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious liberty.
Sensing the opportunity to highlight religious liberty issues in the host country, Graz and his team also invited one of South Africa’s most famous women to address the Cape Town gathering. Ela Ghandi, niece of the famous Indian independence leader and a national icon in her own right, participated in a high-interest panel discussion during the Congress that focused on racial and religious solidarity in her nation and stirred significant attention from national news media. Banned and under house arrest for eight years (1975-1983) during South Africa’s apartheid regime, she has served as parliamentary representative for the ANC government and is currently a national vice president for the World Conference on Religion and Peace.
In her address to the Congress delegates, Ela Ghandi highlighted her belief that neither governments, faith traditions, nor people groups have to be bound by their difficult pasts. “Peace work, social work, and other social science practice is based on the belief that people can change,” she declared. “There is always the potential of a turning point in people’s lives. Repentance, willingness to work on reparations and restoration are hallmarks for transformation. The need to find space in religion to facilitate the change is the real challenge to the religious communities.”
The optimism undergirding Ghandi’s belief in the possibility of change was expressed by many speakers and delegates during the Congress, and illustrated IRLA’s belief that major international gatherings like the Cape Town Congress actually effect change in specific regions of the world.
“We hear many reports of attacks on places of worship, the burning and bombing of churches, mosques, and temples,” says Jonathan Gallagher, IRLA deputy secretary-general and the Adventist Church’s official representative to the United Nations. “Forced conversions, persecution of believers, and discrimination because of religion—such events are all too common in our world. Tragically religion has been hijacked, and has become the single most important factor of peace or war in many regions.”
“Most persecutions happen in secret,” Gallagher adds. “By having a congress like this we are turning a blazing searchlight on places where religious intolerance exists so people can see that this is unacceptable.”
Because of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s unique understandings of the perpetuity of God’s law, the importance of the seventh-day Sabbath, and the soon coming of Jesus, Adventists have often been marginalized and even persecuted by majority Christian populations in countries where principles of church/state separation have not been enshrined in law. Adventists have historically also been targeted in areas dominated by other prevailing ideologies and faiths, including secular Communism, Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism. Founded in 1893, only 30 years after the Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized, the International Religious Liberty Association is a nondenominational organization established by Adventists to promote and defend religious freedom for all people around the world. It is one of the oldest human rights organizations functioning today and organizes a world congress every five years in various parts of the world.
The IRLA’s primary focus is on education in religious freedom and combating religious intolerance wherever it occurs. It annually holds seminars and conferences in many parts of the globe, reports violations of religious rights to the relevant authorities, and works on individual cases where possible. The IRLA works in cooperation with governments, the UN Human Rights Council, and other nongovernmental organizations to highlight abuses of fundamental religious rights, working particularly to assist the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in carrying out that mandate.
More than 70 affiliated religious freedom associations augment the work of the IRLA in places as diverse as Russia, the Caribbean, Venezuela, Peru, the U.S., and the Philippines. (The organization serving the United States, Canada, and Bermuda is the North American Religious Liberty Association —NARLA). In recent years IRLA representatives have made official visits to government representatives and other leaders in Azerbaijan, Russia, Venezuela, Trinidad, Peru, China, Switzerland, France, and Spain, among other locations.
The IRLA has won or secured legal rights for individuals in discrimination issues, and has supported and defended those subject to persecution and intimidation. Recently the IRLA worked to produce a document on guidelines for responsible proselytism, an issue often at the heart of interreligious conflict. Other guidelines include security and religious freedom, and the use of religious symbols in the public arena.
For more information about the International Religious Liberty Association, visit www.irla.org. To join the North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA) and receive regular updates about religious liberty issues in North America, or for additional information, visit www.religiousliberty.info.
Bill Knott is the editor of the Adventist Review, and holds a Ph.D. in American Religious History. He also participated in the IRLA World Congress as a panelist discussing the current status of church/state separation in the United States.