Thousands Rally in São Paulo, Brazil,
for Religious Freedom

Liberty is for all, Wilson, Köhler say; leaders from 20 movements participate (Posted June 20, 2013)

BY MARK A. KELLNER, news editor

A crowd numbering in the multiple thousands of people gathered in Anhangabaú Valley, a square in the old part of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, to celebrate and affirm religious liberty. The rally was the culmination of a week of meetings held by the International Religious Liberty Association—a group sponsored by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in which religious liberty advocates converged to discuss religious liberty matters.
TREASURE FREEDOM: Pastor Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, urges Brazilians to treasure religious freedom in remarks May 25, 2013, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  [PHOTOS: ASN]

“Religious freedom is a gift from God that we should keep as a treasure,” Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, said during the rally. Wilson, and Erton Köhler, South American Division president, were joined by leaders of 20 different religious organizations at the rally.

One of the clergy participants was Sheikh Jihad Hammadeh, chair of the National Union of Islamic Entities. The representative of 1.5 million Muslims, who express their faith freely in Brazil, evaluated the event as very interesting because “it was a way to reaffirm the commitment to a pluralistic society where there is mutual respect.”

Hammadeh said Brazilian legislation ensures fundamental right of belief, adding it is still necessary to work in education so that people continue to learn to understand beliefs different from their own. All religious leaders present at the event received a tribute and a special keepsake for their efforts to create an environment conducive to the free exercise of belief.

Also present was Pastor Jabes de Alencar, who currently leads the evangelical Council of Ministers of São Paulo State. Evangelical support for religious freedom is growing, as these churches themselves account for a growing share of Brazil’s population.

Gilberto Carvalho, chief minister of the Secretariat of the Presidency, representing Brazil’s leader Dilma Rousseff, spoke at the event. He pointed out that the government must always act to ensure the freedom of belief of citizens and signal that these guarantees are always in the plans of the federal government.

Netinho de Paula, Secretary for Racial Equality for the Municipality of São Paulo, represented mayor Fernando Haddad and said he was pleased to participate in an event of this magnitude.

LARGE TURNOUT: Thousands gathered in a square in the heart of Sao Paulo, May 25, to celebrate religious liberty, in an event organized by IRLA, affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

Members of parliament and  city councilors were also present, many of them responsible for the preparation of state and municipal laws that guarantee religious freedom issues in their areas of expertise. Paulo Frange, a São Paulo city councilman, recently passed a law that established May 25 as Religious Freedom Day in the city. State legislator Campos Machado, author of a similar law for the state of São Paulo that designates a specific regional Religious Liberty Day, was also present.

TV Novo Tempo, a network owned by the Adventist Church and which can also be seen over-the-air in São Paulo on channel 46, broadcast live throughout the event, along with sister network Novo Tempo Radio. Also, general media and religious TV stations such as Radio Globo and CBN aired reports from the scene.

Pastor Edson Rosa, executive secretary of IRLA in South America and organizer of the event, said he believed the festival showed a good representation of religions concerned with respect and tolerance. Moreover, he said, the event served to publicize the cause of religious freedom to a greater number of people, which helps reinforce the concept.

RESEARCHER SPEAKS: Brian Grim, at right on Jumbottron screen, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, offered an overview of freedom of conscience. He said 40 percent of the world's countries have major restrictions on religious freedom rights. His translator (left) is Adventist pastor William Costa, Jr. 

Before the rally, international religious liberty leaders addressed an International Symposium on Law and Religious Freedom held by the Bar Association of Brazil (OAB) in São Paulo. On the evening of May 22 several international religious liberty leaders presented an overview on how the subject is treated worldwide to the gathering of area attorneys.

While Brazil’s religious freedom was acknowledged, participants were concerned about reports that 40 percent of the world’s nations place restrictions on the right of belief.

Marcos Costa, bar association president, stressed the importance of a regional commission created to protect religious liberty: “We will continue to support this committee because we believe it is a matter of respect and love for others,” the attorney said.

Committee chair Damaris Kuo told reporters there were daily instances in which intervention to protect religious freedom is required.

She cited, for example, an episode in which Muslims arrested in Brazil were not having their right to pray respected. Another case in which Kuo was engaged concerned art objects that might be seen as hurting religious belief.

Speakers told the legal seminar that the global religious liberty picture was mixed at best.

INTERFAITH MEETING: IRLA representatives meet with Odilo Scherer, center, archbishop of the Roman Catholic church in Sao Paulo.

Brian Grim, senior researcher and director of the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life said at least 40 percent of the countries have a high restriction of rights to religious freedom. Grim, however, noted that Brazil has an admirable ability to deal with religious diversity without internal conflicts.

Ganoune Diop, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s representative to the United Nations, stressed the official statements of the United Nations that guarantee the freedom of the individual and the issue of respect and religious tolerance. Diop stressed that these are pillars to guarantee human dignity.

“We’re talking about freedom of choice, decision-making, and that is in essence what is provided in these U.N. statements,” Diop said. One of the secrets of this harmonious coexistence among different faiths in Brazil seems to be the laws that prevent a particular religion and the state from overlapping.

In a separate meeting with IRLA officials before the rally, Odilo Scherer, Roman Catholic archbishop of São Paulo, praised actions promoting religious freedom, saying Brazil is a peaceful place because there are no laws forbidding a choice of faith and no persecution. Still, Scherer said there was a need for awareness not to exclude participation of religious people in society. “If you do that, it’s going to be a problem and an obstacle for religious freedom, especially when citizens who profess any religion have less opportunity and suffer discrimination,” he said.

                                              —with reporting from Felipe Lemos, ASN, in São Paulo, and Adventist News Network


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