To Honor and Defend

Mark A. Kellner July/August 2004
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Close to 200 people attended the annual Religious Liberty Awards Banquet sponsored by Liberty magazine and the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), in cooperation with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

"This dinner had a unique international dimension," said Dr. John Graz, secretary-general of the IRLA.

Liberty editor Lincoln Steed noted that "while religious liberty is threatened in many ways around the world, the broad participation of national representatives and international freedom advocates at this event shows a determination to defend this special freedom."

Highlights of the April 7 dinner, held in the historic United States Senate Caucus Room on Capitol Hill, included an address by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and an impassioned keynote by Dr. Barry Black, chaplain of the United States Senate.

Senator Brownback attributed his interest in promoting human rights around the world to an insight gained when, as he said, "a few years back I had the good fortune of having cancer." The life-threatening illness "made me think" about the legacy he wanted to leave for a career in public service: citing Luke 12:48, the senator asserted "to whom much is given, much will be required."

Those denied religious freedom, he said, "deserve our efforts" to help assure those rights. He said those blessed with liberty must, as the Bible enjoins, "remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." Hebrews 13:3.

People suffering from religious oppression "want us to elevate" their case to world attention, Brownback said.

Additional encouragement came from Chaplain Black, retired U.S. Navy Chief of Chaplains, who was appointed to his Senate post in mid-2003, and was the first African-American, the first Seventh-day Adventist pastor, and the first military chaplain to get the job. Addressing the audience, which included religious liberty workers from around the nation and overseas, he cited Ephesians 5:16, and urged, "These are evil days, so make every minute count."

He said workers should "cherish activity—even Zacchaeus was climbing a tree" when Jesus addressed him.

"I believe so many are afraid of dying because they have not truly lived," Chaplain Black said, echoing Senator Brownback's personal testimony about a need for social activism on behalf of religious freedom. The senator noted that his near-fatal illness caused a reevaluation of his priorities, much in the same manner as pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan is using his fortune for Christian causes.

The true "stars" of the evening, however, were not only the speakers, but also those honored by the IRLA for their efforts in promoting religious liberty around the world. At the top of this list was Professor Jean Bauberot, a professor at the famed Sorbonne University in Paris and a member of the French Presidential Commission on Laicity, or the separation of church and state.

In accepting an award from Liberty magazine and the IRLA, Professor Bauberot noted that the work of securing religious freedom in France continues, with the recent government action to curtail the wearing of certain religious articles—including the Muslim hijab, or head scarf—in public places, including schools. He said that such rights should not be blocked and commented on the need for greater understanding among peoples.

Anatoly Krasikov, professor at the European Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow was another honoree, noted for his work in advising previous Russian presidents and, earlier, Soviet leaders, on religious affairs, as well as for serving as the first president of the IRLA's Moscow chapter. Professor Krasikov expressed appreciation for the recognition of his work, as well as noting that freedom of religion remains a challenge in Russia.

Seventh-day Adventist pastor Viorel Dima, general secretary of the Conscience and Liberty Association in Romania, was recognized for his work in supporting the religious rights of all people in his country. Dima noted that this was not as easy under the former Soviet-era regime, and said he was pleased that there is greater freedom of conscience now.

Also honored for years of service to the cause of religious liberty was Derek Davis, director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Honored, but unable to attend, was New York City transit worker Mary Myers, whose desire to observe the Sabbath led to a landmark legal decision in her favor against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. A number of other longtime workers in the field were also recognized at the event.

The Religious Liberty Banquet is held to bring attention to the issue of religious liberty in the United States and around the world. It is attended by diplomats from more than 30 nations, along with representatives from the Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of State, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The IRLA is a nonsectarian organization founded in 1893 with the sole purpose of ensuring freedom of conscience for peaceful people of faith. Liberty magazine was founded in 1906 and today has a circulation of approximately 200,000 copies per issue.

Mark Kellner, a regular contributor to Liberty, writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.
Article Author: Mark A. Kellner