IRLA World Congress

March 2, 2007

Greetings from the 6th International Religious Liberty Association World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa.

First comment–way too many suits–don’t you guys know how to relax? Guess its my casual Australian side coming to the fore. I’m in a very small minority not wearing a suit; and an eve smaller minority of the tieless. Since there are those in their national dress–West Africa, Iran etc, I’m declaring Etnies, khaki pants & a casual shirt my national dress. My related observation is that the vast majority of delegates are male. Yes there are women present, but definitely in the minority, & many are attending as the spouses of delegates rather than in their own right (I can tell because of the various coloured tags we all wear.)

A number of the presentations have been excellent, some very brief highlights follow:

  • Every human right has a limit–the rights of others. Rik Torfs (Past Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium) also made the comment that limitations themselves must be limited”.
  • John G. W. (Anglican Priest in Cape Town) a panel presentation yesterday pointed out that “exclusivism is in direct contradiction to religious liberty”. He also made the comment that “religious liberty demands serious theological RE-thinking”.
  • Cole Durham (Brigham Young University) discussed APPROPRIATE restrictions on religious liberty, stating that “such restrictions must arise out of a concern for the human dignity of others”. Furthermore, “the point of these restrictions is to enable other communities to feel secure”.
  • Robert Seiple (ex US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom) discussed the question of tolerance and exclusivity–is it possible to hold exclusive beliefs (one way to salvation for example) and be truly tolerant of others? His answer–there is a need for great humility concerning even our most closely held beliefs.
  • Veteran Bert Beach(Secretary General Emeritus of the IRLA who has attended every IRLA Congress including the first in 1977) stated that “Freedom and Fundamentalism are mutually exclusive”. He defined Fundamentalism in simple terms as being resolutely opposed to change and pluralism.
  • In the first break-out session I attended – “The American Experiment With Religious Freedom”, there was lively discussion amongst the panel & the other attendees. Panelist Lincoln Steed pointed out that that the US Constitution should not be seen as the origin of US religious freedom–but rather, as an expression of it. Another panelist, Nicholas Miller noted that in his opinion, the US was in the process of changing the philosophical basis for its support of religious liberty from a rights based approach to a position of tolerance based in paternalism; following 9-11.
  • Mitch Tyner (past IRLA legal counsel ) noted that it was up to the various faith traditions to “police” their own traditions & point out abuses of interpretation etc. Christians must therefore challenge fundamentalist Christians who espouse violence in any farm–“How dare you use the image of the Prince of peace to justify any form of violence?”
  • Vaughn James (Professor of Law at Texas Tech) pointed out that in his opinion, tolerance is the attitude that “I’ll grin & bear it, but I don’t love it—or even like it!” “Tolerance is a bad thing. The opposite of intolerance must be something better than tolerance. I’d like to suggest that the opposite of intolerance (and tolerance) is love.” James finished by quoting Bob Marley: “One Love!/One Heart!/ Let’s get together and feel all right!” Easily the most enjoyable presentation (dare I say–sermon?) of the Congress.
  • Ebrahim Rasool (The Premier of the Western Cape)–a practising Muslim gave an excellent presentation on how societal harmony can only be guaranteed if there is acceptance and tolerance of one another. He quoted John Kenneth Galbraith–considered to be one of the most significant American economists–“The more uncertain we become, the more dogmatic we become”.
  • The Congress for me ended on a sour note–in the final prayer offered by Clive Dottin (Director of Adventist chaplaincy ministries, PARL, and youth for the Caribbean Union Conference–though he is listed only as the Secretary General of the Caribbean RLA in the program–more on that in a moment. Clive’s prayer was sectarian & unacceptable at an interfaith meeting. It was embarrassing. It contained the phrase, “You cannot know unconditional love, unless you know the unconditional lover…In the name of Jehovah Jireh, The Lion of Judah, Jesus Christ, Amen.” How is this at all appropriate?

Maulvi Wahab Adam speaking

It was clear that the meetings were “a front for the SDA Church” in the words of one presenter (an SDA himself). The very few non-SDAs present were there mainly as presenters. It clearly had a Christian bias & the lack of non-SDA attendees was greatly disappointing. Perhaps we should face realities–the IRLA is SDA through & through (yes I’m aware the current President is a Baptist–Though I’m reasonably certain that all the other personnel are SDAs.) & we should stop pretending its not. The regional directors are all SDAs as far as I’m aware & the IRLA’s geographic divisions correspond to the Divisions of the SDA church. (The South American’s even slipped up in their video presentation & used the term “division”!) Isn’t it misleading to pretend otherwise?

I wonder also about some noticible absences–such as that of Amnesty International. Amnesty is the foremost organization defending human rights–including the right of religious freedom–and it was sad that they had not presence there.

You can check out the official website of the IRLA at: www.irla.org There will be copies of many of the various presentations available for download on the site. There are also .pdf copies of the IRLA’s journal Fides et Libertas also.

Other resources include Liberty magazine: www.libertymagazine.org (SDA) and the International association for religious fReedom (non-SDA) at: http://www.iarf.net/

A list of online organizations can be found at: http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/relfreeorg/



  1. Lucky!
    I was quite active in Amnesty USA a few years back at the tail end of their move to formally and permanently widen their activism beyond prisoners of conscience and death penalty work.

    At the annual general meeting of AIUSA in 2003 they had a representative of Oxfam who spoke of that organizations recent decision to not only seek to relieve hunger, starvation and poverty but to also question, challenge and seek to change the social structures which lead to poverty, starvation and hunger.

    I was reminded of ADRAs work in Azerbaijan and the reasons why ADRA can go into some countries that would not accept other aid organizations. Why? Was it because the oppressive leadership of Azerbaijan didn’t feel ADRA was a threat to his power?

    I personally think it is good that the IRLA and ADRA agendas have remained narrow. I believe their narrow agendas serve a necessary and useful role in the aid and advocacy worlds.

    I personally think the absence of Amnesty says more about the strength/ vision of their interfaith effort.
    Or it could reflect the fact that none of their current campaigns are concerned with religious liberty per se.

    I do believe there is a place for advocacy organizations with narrow focuses and broad agendas and that the absence of Amnesty at the IRLA event does not reflect badly on either organization but rather their different approaches/ agendas.


  2. Dear Hobbes:
    I’m a SDA pastor in Spain, I have added a link to your blog in mine, so yours will push up a few places in the Technorati and Google scores. Could yo do the same for me, please? Mine in spanish (translatable with babelfish service) Here is the address:
    Let’s see if we can spread much better the gospel and the truth.
    Yhank you so much.
    Pedro Torres

  3. Hi Johnny. I agree, there is a place for targeted advocacy–like that of the IRLA. However I’d disagree that the absence of Amnesty International (and other human rights groups) was anything but negative (perhaps they were asked but chose not to participate–I don’t know). It is to me just another indicator of the tunnel vision of the IRLA. If other groups don’t participate in such a conference could it be that the IRLA thinks it’s a much bigger player than it really is?

  4. It wouldn’t surprise me… advocacy organizations with complementary agendas often don’t work together out of pride/ inflated sense of importance. I’d say that is as likely true for IRLA as it is for Amnesty.

  5. Hobbes:

    Great site/blog! I suspect that little would be lost and much gained if the IRLA became the SDARA.

    Why not be straightforward? Why not have the good work of stridently contending for religious liberty gain friends all over the world for our denomination? Does anyone fault the Friends Service Committee for being Quaker or the Mormon Tabernacle choir for being LDS, or the Christian Science Monitor…….?

    When I was a SDA student literature evangelist in Michigan and California, I was taught to introduce myself at the door of each home as a representative of the “Home Health Education Service.” I quickly put that aside and declared myself to be the “Bible Story Books” salesman checking to see if they needed a set at this time. This worked VERY WELL for me for four summers and one school year!

    Thank you!

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