Honoring Freedom

May/June 2011

Three renowned advocates for freedom were honored at the First Freedom Awards gala held January 13, 2011, at the Downtown Richmond Marriott, Richmond, Virginia. The First Freedom Center is a religiously and politically neutral 501(c)(3) organization that sponsors multiple education programs and events to advance the fundamental human rights of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

"The First Freedom Center is proud to recognize profound contributors to the advancement of religious liberty for the 2011 First Freedom Awards," stated First Freedom Center president, Ambassador (ret.) Randolph M. Bell. "In honoring these champions of religious freedom, we shine light on one of the most pressing issues facing humankind today. The ongoing quest to ensure that all societies of the world respect religious freedom as a fundamental human right is at the core of shared aspirations for stability, peace, and the protection of human dignity."

In commemoration of National Religious Freedom Day (January 16), the First Freedom Center annually recognizes an international, national, and Virginia award recipient. This year's recipients were Asma Jahangir, John Graz, and J. Brent Walker.

First Freedom Award recipients left to right: J. Brent Walker; Sulema Jahangir, receiving on behalf of her mother, Asma Jahangir; Rena Berlin, on behalf of the Viriginia Holocaust Museum's Alexander Lebenstein Teacher Institute; and Dr. John Graz.

Asma Jahangir was honored with the International First Freedom Award. As the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief from August 2004 to July 2010, she served as senior authority appointed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to investigate the status of religious freedom worldwide. Jahangir is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and has been twice elected as chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She is also director of AGHS Legal Aid Cell, which provides free legal assistance to the needy. Jahangir was placed under house arrest and later imprisoned for participating in the movement to restore political and fundamental rights under the Pakistani military regime in 1983. She has served as a leading figure in defending cases of discrimination against religious minorities, women, and children. Jahangir has authored two books and five papers and has received a number of international and national recognitions for her work.

John Graz was honored with the National First Freedom Award. Since 1995 Graz has served as secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). More than a century old and organized by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, its purpose is nonsectarian, with many faiths represented on its board of directors. Graz also serves as the IRLA liaison to the United Nations in Geneva. Graz initiated the annual IRLA Meetings of Experts for Religious Freedom and has organized additional world congresses on religious freedom. With his team Graz has developed an IRLA world network in more than 80 countries. Currently a member of the board of the International Academy of Religious Freedom, Graz has also written widely on religious freedom, is the publisher of the journal Fides et Libertas, and is the executive producer of the television show "Global Faith and Freedom."

J. Brent Walker was honored with the Virginia First Freedom Award. Reverend Walker is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC). Based in Washington, D.C., the BJC works with a wide range of religious groups and is dedicated to defending and extending religious liberty for all. Brent Walker is widely published and speaks frequently on church-state issues at conferences and seminars. Walker also provides commentary on church-state issues to national print and broadcast media, including CNN, Fox News, PBS, NBC, NPR, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Atlanta Constitution, the Tampa Tribune, and the St. Petersburg Times.