ince 1995 John Graz has been the director of public affairs and religious liberty of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland. He also serves as the secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). Last June,
Adventist Review associate editor Roy Adams sat down with him for a wide-ranging discussion of the role and function of the IRLA, a body that includes members from a variety of faith traditions—Christian and non-Christian.
Give us a sense of the history of the IRLA. When did it begin?
The association was chartered in 1893, making it the oldest organization defending and promoting religious freedom. The IRLA was revitalized in 1946 and saw its ministry as truly international. Today it serves as the umbrella for many national religious liberty associations.
The IRLA has both a president and a secretary general. How do these two offices relate?
The structure of the association is more or less like the United Nations and other such organizations. The secretary general is the one in charge of the association. The president is the one who represents the IRLA at large, formal meetings. He speaks on behalf of the association and, when present, chairs the meeting of the association’s board of directors.
Who can become members of IRLA?
The organization is open to everyone interested in protecting, promoting, and defending religious freedom for all people, everywhere. Anyone who agrees with that can become a member of the association, regardless of their faith affiliation. Our president, for example, is Baptist. And on the board we have people representing several different religions. Incidentally, it’s individual people, not denominations, who become members. They come in on the basis of their desire to defend religious freedom.
How has the association changed over the years?
At its inception in the late nineteenth century, the organization was very active. That was a period that saw a lot of Sunday law agitation, arousing the interest of Adventists throughout the United States. You may remember that they collected some 500,000 signatures to oppose the (so-called) Sunday “blue laws” and managed to stop their implementation in almost every state of the union. It was the golden age for religious freedom in our church.
In succeeding years, the association became more or less active, depending on the issues at the particular time, on the leaders at the moment, and on many other factors. But in the last several decades, it has become very active again, because religious freedom is now threatened in a way that was not the case just a few decades ago.
And more and more individuals and entities have come to recognize the need for religious liberty—the United Nations, for example, in its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We agree with Article 18 of the Declaration, and we are officially recognized by the U.N. as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). We see the importance of religious freedom growing in the face of increasing religious radicalism, extremism, and intolerance. And as Adventists we have a particular eschatological background, believing that religious freedom will be an issue during the last days.
I’m sure you’ve met Adventists who say that the IRLA is trying to frustrate the fulfillment of prophecy. How do you answer them?
My answer is that Christians were persecuted 2,000 years ago and during the centuries since then. Persecution by itself does not bring about the coming of Jesus. We build hospitals, even though people die. We keep helping the poor, even though they will always be with us. We defend religious freedom not because we believe persecution will end, but because we are a sign of the kingdom of God. We are the disciples of Jesus; and disciples of Jesus are in favor of the freedom to choose. In defending religious freedom, we express the character of God, who is a God of love, and a God who gave us the freedom to choose from the beginning.
How do you answer those who accuse us of self-interest in the area of religious freedom?
People not of our faith have said to me: “Yeah, you defend religious freedom because you are in the minority everywhere. It’s almost natural for you.” But that’s not the case. Rather, it has to do with our understanding of human dignity as creatures of God. Defending religious freedom is an expression of the character of God. We protect and defend people’s right to choose. And in doing that, of course, we also defend and protect ourselves.
It struck me as a little odd that though IRLA believes in the separation of church and state, it on occasion accepts government funding for some projects.
We are very open about it and make every effort to ensure that any help we accept does not threaten our independence. Keep in mind that most of the time such help is not in the form of cash, but in the form of certain facilities (the use of an auditorium, for example). It’s for specific projects, such as international congresses or meetings of experts—limited in time and very precise.
What criteria do you use to evaluate the success of the IRLA? In other words, what outcomes give you assurance you’re fulfilling the goals of the organization?
The first thing is visibility. The association should be seen as a public defender of religious liberty. In this respect, it is important to note that we have been recognized by the United Nations and we are visible to the world body. Another aspect of our visibility comes in the form of the international events we organize—in the last 10 years 18 international congresses (meetings held in a particular area with representatives from several countries) and four world congresses (meetings with delegates from all over the world). In addition we’ve organized symposiums and (something we started only in 1999) eight meetings of experts. The latter serve as a number one think tank on religious freedom. It’s a fabulous group of experts, the majority of whom are not Adventists—top-level people from various universities in Europe, America, and Russia.
They’re experts in what fields?
In the area of religious freedom and church-state relations. We try to focus each time we meet on a particular theme. We started, for example, with proselytism and religious freedom, and published a “code of good conduct” after two meetings in Spain. We then shared the code with the United Nations and with churches, religious leaders, and so on. Proselytism has become a very sensitive issue, and so our document was much appreciated.
What’s this “code of good conduct”? Good conduct on whose part?
It cuts two ways. On the one hand the code affirms my right to believe what I want, to share my faith, to publish books, to change my religion, and so on. But while the code defends those rights, it says that we cannot, at the same time, provoke others. In other words, we practice our religion with due respect for the rights of others. It’s what we call reciprocity. The code says that we cannot insult or force others. We do not provoke; we do not lie; we do not insult.
What are some of the other activities of your expert group?
The meetings that eventually produced the Code of Good Conduct were very important. Other meetings took up the issue of religion in public schools, resulting in the publication of a book that was later used by the United Nations in an international conference in Madrid. It was a fabulous win for Adventists defending religious freedom to be known by the academic world and by the United Nations. Another meeting of the experts, in the wake of 9/11, took up the subject of religious freedom and security—whether religious freedom could interfere with the national security. Another topic was that of religious symbols in the public sphere.
Our goal is to always grapple with topics useful for the different levels of society—whether governments, religions, or international organizations.
You’ve spoken about reciprocity. In this context, what does the word mean?
I might explain it this way. In countries where Christians are in the majority, we ask them to accept and respect Muslim immigrants who want to work in their country. This also means that a predominantly Muslim country should reciprocate, accepting and respecting the religious freedom of Christians and others who are working there.
Another important discussion has to do with the issue of conversion, a subject that forms the basis for a current commission set up by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican. It’s an attempt to come to grips with conversion laws that exist in several countries. Anticonversion legislation is now pending in Sri Lanka, for example, and has been voted in several states in India and in Algeria. There are no fewer than 15 countries right now where, should someone change their religion, they legally could be executed. And whereas most of the time they are not executed, the laws and regulations say they can be.
Does the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have any relationship with the IRLA?
No, they are a totally independent association. Adventists did play a role with them at the beginning, but now we’re no longer involved. The IRLA is focused exclusively on religious freedom, while Americans United has a larger agenda. For the IRLA to move in the direction of human rights, as such, would be to lose its priority. And keep in mind that while there are many agencies defending human rights in general, relatively few are concentrating exclusively on religious rights. We want to stay focused on religious freedom because we are defending people who most of the time are ignored.
Adventists believe that according to prophecy, a time of violent religious persecution is coming. Does that ever come up in the IRLA discussions, either officially or informally?
In the IRLA forum, we don’t necessarily bring matters of personal faith into the discussion. Everyone has their own beliefs. We as Adventists believe that religious freedom will become a bigger and bigger issue, and this is why we need to have a strong association, with many people of good will defending the principles of religious freedom. But our focus is religious freedom. For us as Adventists, of course, we never forget the eschatological aspect of our message.
Do you have Muslims in the IRLA?
Yes, in several of the national associations we have Muslims. We have Muslims in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan. The current president of our association in Russia is a Muslim. There’s no restriction as long as one believes in religious freedom.
Do Muslims in the IRLA sometimes reflect on what comes across as religious intolerance from the Muslim community?
Those who are members of our association are opposed to that kind of intolerance, and some of them have gone to jail just because they have defended human rights. You cannot be intolerant and still be a member of our association. It would be very difficult to stay.
Part of IRLA’s “Declaration of Principles” states that “legislation and other governmental acts which unite church and state are contrary to the best interests of both institutions and are potentially prejudicial to human rights.” How does this apply to a country like the United Kingdom, for example?
That is a very good question and one that people often ask. The United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and several other countries have strong democracies and, at the same time, national churches with close church-state ties. The fact that here we see the phenomenon of national churches combined with strong individual freedoms may seem, on the face of it, to prove that our principles are wrong.
Two factors may be operating here. In the first place, these are highly secularized societies, a reality that plays a pivotal role in what happens on the ground. In the second place, these are countries with a high level of democratic tradition. Given these two factors, arrangements that normally would have the potential for creating problems for religious minorities are limited by legislation and regulations protecting human rights.
But put the same system in another part of the world where you don’t have such human rights legislation, and you open the door for persecution of religious minorities. The best way to protect religious minorities is to avoid a system in which one particular church is recognized as the official church, receiving special privileges and protection from the state and financed by the taxpayers of the state. As religious minorities increase their membership, they become competitors. And when you have competitors, the natural reaction is to stop them. And if you have a strong alliance with the state, the temptation will be to ask the state for help in regard to those who are creating a problem for you. This is why we believe that the existence of state churches is not good for religious freedom.
In many countries, religion is part of life. Is it reasonable to ask people in those areas to separate their “religious” life from their “secular” life by making a distinction between church and state?
There’s strong pressure from many countries today to redefine human rights in a way that respects cultures and traditions. That’s a big challenge. But we need to keep in mind that the concept of religious freedom and human rights in Western countries came after long periods of battle, persecution, and torture. In other words, these rights were not natural to the West; they came only after intense struggle.
During the Dark Ages, Christians were persecuted by Christians in Christian kingdoms. Today we find the same in certain areas where Islam is the dominant religion. Many groups of (dissident) Muslims are being persecuted even though they are Muslim. The best way is to let individuals decide for themselves. To be able to follow one’s religious convictions is a basic human right. The state should not interfere.
Talk a little about the IRLA’s next world congress.
The venue will be Cape Town, South Africa. That will be the sixth one—the previous one was in Manila, Philippines. They come every five years. The date is February 27–March 2, 2007. We hope to have the president of the Republic of South Africa in attendance, as well as several other well-known people from South Africa and Africa in general. It will be the first world congress in Africa, and very much needed. We have countries in Africa where we don’t know what the future will be for religion, because of a clash between Muslims and Christians, with the potential for religious war in several regions if nothing is done. This means it is important to have the congress in Cape Town and to invite the world to attend. It will demonstrate that we are interested in what happens in Africa, and we want to do something about it. (Those wishing to attend the congress may register on our Web site.*)
*For more information on how to register for the sixth world congress that will be held in Cape Town, South Africa, visit the International Religious Liberty Association’s Web site at www.irla.org.