Brazil Religious Freedom Meeting Finds Common Ground for ‘New Millennium’
The crowning achievement for the International Coalition for Religious Freedom (ICRF) in 1998 came at its Sao Paulo conference, entitled "Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium." The conference brought together more than 120 scholars, human rights activists, religious leaders and legal experts from 33 countries at Sao Paulo’s prestigious Sheraton Moferrej Hotel, October 10-12.
The Sao Paulo conference came on the foundation of three earlier conferences in 1988, also dealing with "Religious Freedom and the New Millennium," in Washington DC, Tokyo and Berlin. Speakers at these conferences included such figures as Nobel laureate and former president of Costa Rica Oscar Arias, National Association of Evangelicals president Don Argue, Freedom House president Adrian Karatnycky, and former prime minister of Ireland, Albert Reynolds.
The Sao Paulo meeting was characterized by a spirit of openness and cooperation between North and South American delegates, as well as an attitude of mutual respect between Protestants and Catholics, and between Christian and non-Christian participants. Organizers were particularly pleased by the participation of noted representatives of the Catholic Church in Latin America, notably Fr. Carlos Mario Alzate, Director of the Ecumenical Department of the Episcopal Council of Colombia, and Dr. Lina Boff, Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University at Rio De Janeiro.
From a practical standpoint, the Sao Paulo conference presented difficult challenges. Not only was it organized in a record short time of less than three weeks, but conference staff faced a serious problem in securing visas for participants. The Brazilian embassy in the US and other countries at first declined to issue any visas for the conference, claiming that the ICRF, because of its open and proud association with the Unification Church and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, was suspect. Among those who stood to be turned down under this policy were the head of a prestigious human rights organizations and a former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.
After several tense days of negotiations and communications between Brazilia and Washington, DC, the Embassy’s original policy was reversed and visas were finally issued for all participants. Several delegates commented that their trouble obtaining a visa helped them appreciate the fact that freedom of speech and religion cannot be taken for granted, even in a relatively open society such as Brazil’s.
Previous ICRF conferences also had to overcome obstacles of prejudice. During the Washington DC conference, an associate of a delegate from Venezuela was held overnight by police and closely questioned concerning the conference’s schedule, speakers, funding and purpose. At the Tokyo conference, Russian delegates could not obtain visas to enter Japan. A week later, at the Berlin conference, hotel officials, under pressure from opponents of new religions, attempted unsuccessfully to persuade conference organizers to cancel its optional interfaith service and drop one of its featured speakers. Thankfully, none of these problems, with the exception of the Russian delegates’ inability to attend in Tokyo, seriously affected the conferences’ accomplishments.
As if on cue on October 9, the day before the Sao Paulo conference, the US Senate unanimously passed the "International Religious Freedom Act" requiring the US government to impose sanctions on those countries that engage in violations of religious freedom.
At the opening banquet on Saturday Evening, delegates were welcomed to Brazil by Mr. Marco Polo del Nero, a well known attorney and head of the Brazilian Federation of Soccer Referees. Mr. Jose Maria Eymael, head of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party and a recent candidate for President of Brazil, also greeted the participants. The keynote address was given by Dr. Paul Muller, Chancellor Emeritus of the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica, who inspired the audience with a vision of religious freedom as the foundation for world peace and unity in the new millennium.
Sunday morning began with an optional interfaith worship service, followed by breakfast and a morning plenary session. Featured speakers were Mr. Dong Moon Joo of the Washington Times Foundation, who spoke on "Religious Freedom and World Peace" and Mr. Elliott Abrams of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, who addressed the topic "North America, Latin America and Religious Freedom." Both talks were greeted with great enthusiasm by the participants.
"The most essential freedom of all is the freedom of religious conscience--the freedom to worship, to believe and to practice the faith of one's choosing," said Mr. Joo. "Without religious freedom, the freedoms of speech, of the press, of association, of movement and of the marketplace are incomplete, and ultimately impossible."
Mr. Abrams, who formerly served as the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, also emphasized the central role of religious freedom as a fundamental human right: "Religious freedom came late to the world. It was far easier in many cultures to allow some freedom of movement, of political speech, of voting rights, than to allow people to believe what was seen as ‘error’ and as sin. But today we have truly realized that religious freedom is an essential cornerstone of all human rights and all freedoms. If men and women are deprived even the ability to worship their God, and to raise their children in their religion, we can be sure that no other freedom is safe."
The second plenary session dealt more specifically with the topic "Religious Freedom in Latin America and the Caribbean Today." Luis Ramirez of the Committee for Religious Liberty in Venezuela covered the Caribbean, while Dr. Paul Sigmund of Princeton University and Mr. Pedro Moreno of The Rutherford Institute dealt with Latin America from Catholic and Protestant perspectives, respectively.
During lunch, former US Senator Larry Pressler addressed participants on the question "Religious Freedom and Inter-American Relations." Sen. Pressler stressed the importance of democracy as a foundation for religious freedom and praised Latin America’s progress in the regard over the past two decades. He said the US can feel justly proud that it contributed to this process by helping Latin American nations resist the threat of communist totalitarianism.
The first afternoon breakout sessions covered a) the Theological and Historical Aspects of Religious Freedom in Latin America and b) The New Pluralism and Religious Freedom in Latin America. Topics and speakers included:
Committee A: Theological and Historical Aspects
1. The Historical Background
Antonio Stango, Helsinki Commission, Italy
2. Developments Since Vatican II
Lina Boff, Pontifical Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro
3. Directions for Religion at the Turn of the Millennium
Lisias Nogueira Negrao, University of Sao Paulo
4. Current and Future Issues
Jose Yelincic, Bolivia
Committee B: The New Pluralism and Religious Freedom
1. Evangelical Denominations and Catholic Culture
Carlos Mario Alzate, Episcopal Conference of Colombia
2. The Moral Challenge of Religious Diversity
Lewis Rambo, San Francisco Theological Seminary
3. The Changing Landscape of Religion and Freedom
Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom House
The second round of breakout sessions dealt with the topic "Beyond Toleration." Committee A featured a mini-workshop in "Deep Dialogue" led by Dr. Leonard Swidler editor of the Journal of Ecuemnical Studies and Dr. Ashok Gangadean of the Global Dialog Institute. Committee B covered "Overcoming Religious Intolerance." Topics at speakers are as follows:
1. International Agreements and the Protection of Religious Freedom
Lee Boothby, International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief
2. Media Sensationalism and Its Effects
Larry Moffitt, Tiempos del Mundo
3. The Evolving Role of the State in Interfaith Relations
Paul Martin, Columbia University Center for Human Rights
4. The UNO Convention and ECLA Regional Agreements
Giulio Murano, International Federation of Human Rights, Italy
The dinner program featured a speech by well known Brazilian journalist and author Jorge Boaventura, who spoke on "The Responsibility of the State to Defend Religious Freedom." This was followed by a program of Brazilian music emceed by Mr. Antonio Betancourt of the Summit Council for World Peace.
The next morning, delegates gathered at 9:00 a.m. for the session on "Religious Freedom Concerns." Here, a panel of distinguished representatives of various religious groups gave brief presentations about the concerns of their particular religious communities. Included, were Catholic, Protestant, Native Brazilian, African Brazilian, Scientologist, Unificationist, and Buddhist perspectives. Speaking on behalf of Unificationism, Mr. Antonio Bentancourt of the Summit Council for World Peace listed several urgent contemporary problems:
The infringement of Reverend and Mrs. Moon’s right to travel to several major European countries through an unjustifiable use of the Schengen Treaty, which was designed limit the immigration of terrorists.
The failure of the government of Japan to take action to protect the religious freedom of more that 200 Unificationists each year who undergo the torture of forced "deprogramming" each year in that country.
The refusal of Japan to allow Reverend Moon to enter the country to officiate at next year’s planned events during the World Cultural and Sports Festival.
A continuing atmosphere of prejudice and suspicion against Unificationists as "cultists," fed by hateful stereotypes and media sensationalism.
The conference concluded with committee reports the adoption, uncer the chairmanship of ICRF president Bruce Casino of a Joint Declaration on Religious Freedom, based on the earlier documents created in Tokyo and Berlin.
The Declaration reads in part:
"…Each religious faith should receive equal protection of its religious freedom and there should be no hierarchy of religious faiths established by government policy or action on religious freedom.
… Legislative committees or government agencies or government lists or other government activities which focus only on minority religious faiths should not be formed or undertaken since their narrow focus discriminates between categories of religions on a discriminatory basis and has resulted in discrimination against minority faiths.
…The forcible kidnapping of members of a religious faith in order to force them to change their faith ("deprogramming") and other forms of religious vigilantism are a violation of religious freedom and should be vigorously prosecuted by government authorities.
…Immigration and other laws and treaties should not be applied to restrict the ability of believers and leaders of religious faiths and their representatives to establish and maintain direct personal contacts and communication with each other...
…Discrimination in employment, obtaining of government benefits, housing, or political participation based on religious faith should not be permitted… There should be no religious litmus test for serving in public office.
…Use of the term "cult" or "sect" by government agencies has developed a pejorative connotation and the terms "religion," "minority religion," "small religion," or "new religion" should be used instead."
ICRF is currently completing preparations for the publication of the proceedings of all four 1998 conferences on Religious Freedom and the New Millennium. As they are edited, individual papers will be posted on our website.
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