by Monte Sahlin

From ANN, May 6, 2014

Knox Thames, an official of the United States government, addressed the 12th annual Religious Liberty Dinner last week at the Willard InterContinental hotel in Washington D.C., an event sponsored each year by a group organized by Adventists, the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). It came on the same day the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its 15th annual report.

“Sadly our report shows us that the forces of intolerance are on the move, be they repressive governments or extremist groups,” said Thames, policy and research director for the commission. He was presented with an award by the IRLA. He has worked throughout his career to promote freedom of conscience and has known friends in other countries killed for speaking out against religious intolerance.

He described religious repression and violence as “casting a shadow” to create darkness. The answer to combat the darkness, he said, was “light,” and invoked the symbol of a flame, which is used by many faith groups. “With conditions the way are globally, we need to redouble our efforts. … I know that if we all carry individual lights into dark places, the darkness is pushed back,” he said.

The annual dinner has become a tradition in the U.S. capital—Thames in a lighter moment called it “the best religious freedom party in town”—and underscores the case of the hundreds of millions of people who are mistreated because of their faith, now more than 60 years after the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The annual gathering honors those who work to protect and promote religious freedom and draws members from the diplomatic community, U.S. government, religious leaders of various faiths, and religious freedom advocates. The dinner is jointly sponsored by the IRLA, the North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA), Liberty magazine and the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

Attendees also heard from Melissa Rogers, special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In a keynote address, Rogers, who is the principal advisor on faith issues to President Barak Obama and the administration, stressed the need to focus on commonalities in working for religious freedom in the U.S.

“Americans don’t always agree on the specific applications of these principles,” Rogers said. “Indeed, it’s when we have serious areas of disagreement that we ought to double down on trying to find areas of agreement. Because when we don’t, we are apt to start treating one another as enemies rather than as opponents on particular issues, we are apt to miss opportunities where we can work together to do real good for our neighbors, and we are apt to forget that that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.”

Rogers said an example of various groups finding common ground was in 2009 when President Barak Obama created an advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, which she chairs, to examine how government works with religious groups to serve people in need. The task force, Rogers said, was comprised of advocates for religious freedom and separation of church and state. She said the group has helped more clearly define roles of religious organizations as they receive governmental funding for charity work—beneficiaries receiving federal funds aren’t required to participate in the religious activities of the provider. “May we always maintain this country as a place of incredible religious diversity and remarkable religious cooperation and peace,” Rogers said to end her speech.

Another award was given to Eric W. Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Recognition was also given to Pastor Antonio Monteiro, the Adventist minister who was jailed for nearly two years with a blood libel, a case that illustrates numerous people worldwide suffering for religious reasons.

IRLA Secretary-General John Graz called religious freedom a gift from God, but a “fragile gift.” He stated, “We can lose it. The best way to lose religious freedom is to do nothing to promote it and defend it. … “And that’s why we have done our best to promote religious freedom around the world since our association was incorporated in 1893.”

Keynote speakers for the Religious Liberty Dinner in previous years have included Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, former U.S. Secretaries of State and Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Senator John McCain, and members of the U.S. House of Representatives from both major political parties.

The Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news service of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.