By AT News Team, Feb. 4, 2015:   The National Religious Liberty Association was launched in Jamaica last week with a governing board headed by the leader of an ecumenical organization and including “a number of other denominational heads,” reported the Jamaica Observer newspaper. The event brought a “standing room only” crowd of thousands to the National Arena in Kingston. The Jamaica Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists convened the gathering and mobilized delegations from all of its 730 congregations.

The event was “the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean,” the newspaper stated. Rev. Conrad Pitkin, president of the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches, is serving as chairman of the board and Pastor Nigel Coke, public affairs director for the Adventist denomination in Jamaica, is the secretary-general. Key politicians addressed the crowd as well as representatives from the Adventist General Conference (GC) in Washington DC.

Robert Pickersgil, a cabinet member speaking on behalf of the nation’s prime minister, said that the 2011 constitutional amendments which adopted a Charter of Rights secures freedom of religion for Jamaican citizens. He pointed out the “enormous impact” of religious liberty in the country. “Countless schools, hospitals, donor agencies and long-standing community development programs in Jamaica are the result of religious freedom and the strong influence of the church,” he stated as quote in the newspaper.

Pearnel Charles, a member of parliament represented the Opposition Leader. He pledged the Labour Party to defend religious liberty under all circumstances and challenged the churches to take a stand against all kinds of human injustice. “You cannot be silent when freedom is under attack,” he stated. “He also encouraged the church to care about politics,” the newspaper reported because people of faith cannot expect that their religious rights will be protected when they do not support the rights of others, including rights beyond religion.

The new association will be affiliated with the International Religious Liberty Association which was organized by the Adventist denomination in the United States and is accredited as a non-governmental organization at the United Nations (UN). Dr. Ganoune Diop, who is the full-time representative of the Adventist faith at the UN, was a key speaker at the event, reported The Sunday Gleaner.

“All religious freedom depends on freedom of worship,” Diop is quoted. “Jamaica is sending a message to [other] countries that all religious faiths can cohabit.” He expressed “a thank you to the Government and people of Jamaica” for their tolerance and protection of religious rights.

Last year the Jamaica parliament passed a law introducing flexibility in the work week “which set off a firestorm of controversy [because] it is seen by a number of religious groups as a threat to religious freedom [which] they do not believe … sufficiently protects their day of worship,” evidently because it does away with a tradition of closing businesses on Sundays. The majority party that governs the nation points to a provision in the new law that protects the right of employees to take a 24-hour period off during each week that can be used as a day of worship or spiritual retreat.

The Adventist denomination has nearly 300,000 members in the island nation, about 10 percent of the population. Adventists hold a number of prominent posts in government and business. The former union conference president Sir Patrick Allen is the nation’s governor-general, representing the authority of Queen Elizabeth II.