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ICRF Conferences in Washington, Tokyo, and Berlin PDF Print E-mail

 

Religious Freedom and the New Millennium:

ICRF Conferences in Washington, Tokyo, and Berlin

by Dan Fefferman

To discuss the current and future state of religious freedom throughout the world, the International Coalition for Religious Freedom conducted three international conferences on "Religious Freedom and the New Millennium" in April and May, 1998. The meetings took place in Washington DC, Tokyo and Berlin.

The Washington conference brought together 140 religious leaders, scholars, human rights leaders, and government officials from 45 nations at the Washington Renaissance Hotel in from Friday April 17, to Sunday, April 19.

The conference began on Friday evening with a reception and dinner. Mr. Dan Fefferman, ICRF Executive Director, acted as the emcee for the conference. After dinner, Dr. Joseph Paige, the former President of Shaw Divinity School, greeted the participants with welcoming remarks. The audience was treated to a stirring address by Dr. Franklin Littell from Temple University, who demonstrated his commitment to the cause by making his way to the conference despite having been seriously injured in an automobile accident only a few days before. He stated his concern about developments in Western Europe—especially in Germany—and encouraged participants to strive to establish the absolute right of religious freedom, not merely to accept tolerance on the part of the state. ICRF President Bruce Casino closed the evening with greetings from the sponsoring organization.

Saturday’s proceedings began with an address to the opening plenary session by ICRF Chairman and President of The Washington Times Foundation, Mr. Dong Moon Joo. Mr. Joo laid before the delegates the goal of a world in which every nation enjoys religious freedom, a world in which people are free to follow and express the dictates of their conscience in pursuing religious truth. His remarks were followed by a profound discussion of the need for "deep dialogue" between people of different religious and cultural views by Dr. Leonard Swidler, the founder of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. The keynote speaker for the plenary session was Nobel Laureate President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. Dr. Arias discussed the relationship between religious freedom and other human rights.

Following the opening plenary session a panel addressed the conference on the "Present State of Religious Freedom" throughout the world. Speakers included:

  • Europe: Christian Bruenner, University of Graz, Austria
  • CIS: Peter Juviler, Barnard College
  • North America and the Caribbean: Brad Dacus, Pacific Justice Institute
  • Middle East: Nina Shea, Freedom House
  • Africa: Mark Sigmon, Christian Mission Network
  • Asia: Michael Young, Columbia University
  • Latin America: Rev. Julio Millan, Interdenominational Evangelical Federation, Venezuela

After this general discussion, the conference broke up into three committees for a more focused look at specific religious freedom issues and cases. In each committee, a series of papers were heard and discussed providing participants with a broad range of views and an opportunity to ask questions and share ideas. Over the next two days each committee met for three sessions discussing (1)Religious Freedom: Past, Present and Future; (2) the Character of Religious Freedom, and (3) the Battle for Religious Freedom. In total, 24 papers were discussed in the committees.

Saturday’s luncheon speaker was Rev. Don Argue from the National Association of Evangelicals. Rev. Argue was one of three American religious leaders who recently visited China to examine the state of religious freedom there. Rev. Argue provided participants with a first hand account of their tour.

One of the highlights of the conference was an open forum on Saturday evening. Members of a numerous faiths gave testimony of violations of religious freedom which their members were facing in various parts of the world. Individuals representing Evangelicals, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Scientologists, Pentecostals, the Unification Church, and others shared first hand testimony with the fellow participants.

Sunday’s proceedings began with an optional ecumenical service, followed by a final session of the individual committees. Delegates then reconvened for the closing plenary session. A rapporteur for each committee provided a summary of each committee presentations and discussion for the general session.

Participation in the Washington conference was not without its risks. Delegates were concerned to learn that in Venezuela, an associate of one of the speakers was detained by police and questioned throughout the night regarding the conference’s purpose, sponsorship and participants. We have since learned that, apparently in part as a result of these and other heavy-handed tactics, the government minister in charge of overseeing religious affairs was later dismissed.

Tokyo

The Tokyo conference brought together 150 scholars, human rights activists, religious leaders and legal experts from May 23-25, at the prestigious Hotel Okura. Approximately 70 participants came from overseas. Questions of religious freedom have come to the fore recently In Japan as that country strives cope with increasing pluralism together with challenges such as the disastrous subway gassing apparently carried out by members of a new religious movement.

Featured speakers at the Saturday evening opening banquet included former US Congressman Toby Roth, conference chairman Prof. Michimasa Irie of Aoyama Gakuin University, and former US State Department official Elliott Abrams of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC.

Congressman Roth expressed the importance of religious freedom as a founding principle in US history and urged an increasing emphasis on religious freedom issues in US and international foreign policy. Prof. Irie welcomed overseas participants to Japan and discussed the unique background forming the Japanese attitude toward religious freedom. Mr. Abrams predicted that religious freedom and respect for pluralistic values will become and increasingly crucial issues as geographic and other communications barriers become less significant.

Sunday morning’s optional ecumenical service included a variety of world religious traditions, including Zen Buddhist, Shintoist, Islamic and several Christian denominations.

The morning plenary session addressed the question "The Significance of Religious Freedom in Today’s World." Prof. Franklin Littell dealt with the topic "Religious Freedom and the Foundation of Democracy, "while Prof. Misimasa Irie presented a paper on "Religious Freedom and the New World Order," and Mr. Dong Moon Joo offered stimulating remarks on "Religious Freedom, Unity and World Peace."

A second plenary session dealt with the topic "Current Threats to Religious Freedom." Topics and speakers were as follows:

  • Developing Countries: Pedro Moreno, Rutherford Institute
  • Developed Countries: Lee Boothby, Interntional Academy of Freedom of Religion & Belief
  • Former and Current Communist Countries: Peter Juviler, Columbia University
  • Japanese Perspective on Religious Freedom: Hiroi Takase, Takushoku University
  • European Perspective on Religious Freedom: Christian Brunner, University of Graz, Austria

The afternoon committee sessions included two sessions of two groups each. The first session dealt with the topics "Japan and Religious Freedom: Philosophical and Cultural Perspectives" and "Religious Freedom and Psychology." The latter focused on the "deprogramming" issue, as Japan has recently witnessed hundreds of converts to new religions abducted and subjected to faith-breaking indoctrination in the wake of concerns over the Tokyo subway tragedy allegedly associated with the Aum Shenrikyo religious group.

The second sessions dealt with "Japan and Religious Freedom: Reality," and "Religious Freedom and Society." Individual topics included: "The Social and Legal Status of Religious Minorities in Japan" by Mark R. Mullins, Meiji Gakuin University; "Separation of State and Religion and Japanese Education" by Seishiro Sugihara, Musashino Women's University; "Intolerance of Japanese Major Religions toward New Religions" by Shorin Shaky, Chief Priest, Houonakaku Temple; "The Social Challenge and Potential of New Religious Movements" by Jeffrey Hadden, University of Virginia; "A Global Dialog Between World Religions" by Ashok Gangadean, Global Dialogue Institute and several others.

The dinner program featured Rev. Don Argue, National Association of Evangelicals, USA, who once again offered a report on his recent fact finding trip to China. Monday morning’s plenary session featured committee reports and several short remarks by Japanese Diet members who offered support and encouragement to the conference.

The Tokyo Conference concluded with closing remarks and a reading of a joint declaration by ICRF president Bruce Casino. Delegates engaged in a lively discussion of several points and also offered useful suggestions for future conferences. The declaration was further modified by the Berlin conference and is reproduced on page (number).

Berlin

The atmosphere surrounding ICRF’s Berlin conference was charged with controversy. Recent German reaction against new religious movements resulted in pressure applied to the hotel originally scheduled to host the conference. A second hotel—the Maritim hotel in the eastern section of Berlin—nearly canceled as well and attempted to pressure the conference to drop one of its featured speakers and to cancel its optional ecumenical service. The hotel, after reviewing the participants list—which included a sitting US Congressmen and several European, Russian and Latin American parliamentarians—eventually relented and provided good service to the conference.

The conference opened with welcoming remarks by Bruce Casino, followed by keynote addresses on "Religious Freedom and Democracy as Fundamental Human Rights" by Adrian Karatnycky of Freedom House and "Religion and Enlightenment at the Turn of the Century" by Michael Fischer of the University of Salzburg.

The Saturday morning plenary featured three addresses. US Congressman Charles Canady, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, spoke on "Religious Freedom and Democracy." The topic "Religious Freedom and World Peace" was addressed both by ICRF Chairman Mr. Dong Moon Joo and by the Hon. Albert Reynolds, former Prime Minister of Ireland. Mr. Reynolds’ presentation demonstrated both the urgency and the power of religious freedom and tolerance, as he had recently been instrumental in negotiations for a peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

The second plenary session dealt with a survey of religious freedom in Europe and the CIS. Speakers and areas of focus were as follows:

Great Britain and Ireland: Clinton Bennett, University of Oxford, Great Britain
Scandinavia and the Baltic countries: Juha and Marja Pentikainen, University of Helsinki, Finland
Eastern Europe and the Balkans: Emil Koen, Tolerance Foundation, Bulgaria
Southern Europe: Silvio Ferrari, University of Milan, Italy
Russia and CIS: Galina Starovoytova, State Duma of the Russian Federation
German and French speaking Europe: Anne Morelli, Free University of Brussels, Belgium

Afternoon breakout session covered five topics: 1) Cooperating to defend Religious Minorities, 2) Religious Freedom in the European Context, 3) Universal Standards of Religious Freedom, 4) Religious Freedom and European Governments and 5) Religious Freedom and Human Nature.

During the evening, participants were treated to a short tour of Berlin, featuring such sites as the remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and several sites of cultural interest.

The Sunday morning ecumenical service, originally feared by hotel management to be a "sect activity," turned out to be very well attended many diverse traditions represented in readings, songs and worship.

Morning committee sessions featured a Report on Challenges to Religious Freedom in Europe and the CIS in which Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Unificationist, Mormon, Scientologist, Islamic, African Christian and Esoteric experts expressed the concerns of their faith communities with regard to religious liberty. A second committee session dealt with the role of the mass media and the anti-cult movement in creating an atmosphere of religious intolerance in Europe’s increasingly pluralistic society.

The closing plenary session featured an address by Dr. Franklin Littell, who had spent several years as an advisor on religious to the US High Commission in post WWII Germany. Dr. Littell warned that the system set up in Germany to facilitate communication and mutual understanding between mainstream and minority religious groups was now being used to create prejudice and intolerance toward the smaller groups.

The conference concluded with Bruce Casino leading the participants in a discussion on suggestions for further activities and adoption of a revised version of the statement created at the Tokyo conference.

According to ICRF Executive Director Dan Fefferman, the three conferences will set the stage for expanded ICRF educational efforts throughout the globe. "On the foundation of the Tokyo and Berlin conference, we have hopes of establishing offices and ongoing programs in Asia and Europe," he said. "We are also planning to conduct a fourth conference, hopefully this fall, in Latin America."