Editor’s note: From time to time, we interview the various entities that serve the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. In this issue we interviewed John Graz, director of the General Conference Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL); Dwayne Leslie, associate director, PARL, and director of Legislative Affairs; and Ganoune Diop, associate director, PARL, and director of United Nations Relations. We hope as a result you will gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the work of this department.
Willie Hucks (WH): What does Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) mean? What do you wish to accomplish in both public affairs and religious liberty?
John Graz (JG): The religious liberty department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was organized in 1901. After the Second World War, they added Public Affairs to the department. We have several branches. One is defending and promoting religious freedom. Most of the time we work through the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) to more easily access authorities, because, in this association, we don’t represent just one church, but a group of people who defend religious freedom.
The second branch is public affairs. Public affairs means that everything connected with government comes to our department. It’s like a foreign affairs department. We also deal with things connected directly with religious freedom from a legal point of view. We have a congressional liaison, Dwayne Leslie. Everything going on in Washington, DC, he knows about and represents the church there.
Another branch, interchurch relations, came under our department in 1980. All connections with other religions, not just churches, go through our department. And we also lead the General Conference council of interchurch relations.
Another branch contains protocol. Every time we receive a dignitary, ambassador, head of state, or minister of government at the General Conference, it goes through our department.
We work in Washington, because we need to know what’s going on regarding the United States (US) government, especially legislation that could affect our religious freedom. We need the right information to do our best to protect our freedom.
We are recognized at the United Nations (UN) and have a great influence on several problems internationally.
Our department is involved in defending and promoting human rights.
Derek Morris (DM): Dwayne, tell us what you do in regard to interacting with Washington, DC.
Dwayne Leslie (DL): It’s important for the world church to have a presence in Washington, DC. So, I am the liaison between the world church and Washington, whether that is the United States Congress, White House, State Department, or other executive agencies any groups based in Washington that impact the church or church interests. Part of my responsibility is to stay on top of all pending legislation that might impact the church and relate to religious freedom. I'm part of several interfaith roundtables that are interested in the protection and promotion of religious freedom. And then, where certain topics might be of interest to the church and other faiths, we join interfaith initiatives to promote and protect religious freedom.
We should be tireless advocates for freedom in Washington and elsewhere around the world. I regularly meet with congressional staffers, the State Department, and other government agencies. I also deal with the faith community so that when the church needs assistance, I have those relationships already in place to be advocates for us.
We currently have two Seventh-day Adventist members serving in the United States Congress. The newest member, Dr. Raoul Ruiz, was elected in November 2012 from California’s 36th District. After he was elected, I made an appointment to sit down with him, introduce myself on behalf of the church, and make connections with his staff. I am a point person for when folks in the church need a contact.
DM: What about your department’s work at the UN?
Ganoune Diop (GD): I represent the Seventh-day Adventist Church at the UN, probably the most significant international relations forum. All nations have space regarding mediations for relations. My job is to convince world leaders, diplomats, decision makers, lawmakers, you name it, that they gain to have Adventists living in each one of their countries. And in doing so, I have opportunities to articulate who we are, what we believe, and our theology.
The UN is based on three pillars: The first one is peace and security; they focus on and have instruments there to solve problems related to wars, conflicts between nations, and how to bring about peace and security. The second pillar is development and justice; without development and justice there will be no peace among nations nor security because people would be fighting for things like resources. Then we have a third pillar: human rights. It is actually further subdivided into three pillars: freedom, equality, and human dignity. Adventists have much to offer there. Why? Because we are Christians, and Jesus spoke about peace, security, freedom, equality, and dignity.
When it comes to the middle pillar, development in particular, Adventists have probably one of the most significant portfolios as far as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). We make contributions regarding education, health, youth, women, humanitarian issues, and, of course, human rights. We are very small compared to other organizations, but I believe we can start building infrastructure in order to be able to make more of a difference than just alliances. Hopefully, as Adventists, we will gradually develop an infrastructure to be able to directly influence the system. Amazingly, I found out at the UN that you have theologians, thinkers, who are bringing to the table aspects of their core values that sway decisions.
JG: Our department is also in charge of conversations with other churches. The result is that they recognize Adventists are a Christian church. Many look at us as a sect or cult. Our conversations have changed their vision of us. Now we will focus on how we can promote and defend religious freedom. Dr. William Johnsson, former editor of the Adventist Review, is in charge of this conversation with other churches.
Dr. Diop is a member of the Committee of the Global Christian Forum, where everyone can be represented: Pentecostal, Russian Orthodox, and so on. And I have been secretary ten years now of the Christian World Communion, the highest group of religious leaders, and Bert Beach, former PARL director, was secretary for thirty-two years before me. This means that one of the highest interchurch groups has had an Adventist secretary for more than forty years. Even if we are a minority, we are recognized as being part of a Christian community. Mingling with other Christians gives us an opportunity to talk about religious freedom and about things that are directly connected with our presence in the society and the world.
WH: How do you see the state of religious freedom in the world today, and on what levels is your department working to promote and defend it?
JG: The state of religious freedom since I’ve been here, eighteen years now, has been decreasing around the world. When I came in 1995, we had a lot of hope about countries like Russia. Russia had legislation that was very open. Billy Graham came to Moscow, and Mark Finley gave a big campaign in the Kremlin. Public evangelism would be very difficult today. And all of central Asia was open, but now, it’s more difficult there. There are a limited number of churches, and it’s very difficult to open new churches.
We need to know what’s going on. We have excellent colleagues worldwide giving us information. And when we have a problem somewhere, we work through what we have. One of our jobs is to build a network with whom we can work. So when something happens, we know who can help and don’t waste our time.
The firstfruits of religious freedom are the right to preach what you believe; the right to be different, if you want to be different; and the right to be united with others, if you want to be united. And we are defending these basic rights. But we cannot do that alone. We have to work with others, to make friends with others, and we are stronger in doing that. And this is the way we use to pass legislation that protects Adventists.
DL: The Pew Forum conducts an annual survey that looks at restrictions on religion throughout the world. Over the last few years, the number of people living under restriction has been steadily increasing. The most recent report noted that 75 percent of the world’s population now lives under some form of restriction on religion. Previously it was 70 percent. So things aren’t getting any better. And so, in a place like Kazakhstan where they’re implementing restrictive religious laws, many churches, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, lost their legal status and were forced to satisfy both quantitative and qualitative tests to get reinstated as a religion. While the Adventist Church and many other churches have now been reinstated, we still must speak out because these religion laws are still quite oppressive. While reinstatement allows you to meet within an authorized building, it prohibits you from practicing your faith in certain ways outside of that specific location. For example, a Bible study in your home would not be permitted. Many of the churches that did not get reinstated now are subject to raids and actual liquidation. Those things are happening today, and people aren’t hearing that. It is important to note that many people of other minority faiths are being persecuted, suffering, and restricted from following their conscience. Those are the kind of things we need to speak against.
GD: When you look at restrictions, you have, on the one hand, government restrictions. But you have also the hostility of the population. Between 80 to 90 percent of those persecuted for their faith in the world are Christians. Every year about 150 thousand Christians are killed. I was at the UN for the Human Rights Council and was approached by a president of an NGO. He specifically told me what is happening right now in Sudan, where Christians are basically killed or forced to leave the country and their churches are burned. And this is happening while we speak. Unfortunately, it is increasing in various parts of the world.
Our job is to look at what is happening, inform the church, and encourage the church on how to do things. We are not going to stop the tide of evil in this world. However, it will help if members are educated and carefully trained as to how to relate to others. Biblical foundations and principles help us relate to other people in the way that Christ did.
JG: We have visited countries where people are persecuted. We spent a few days in eastern Indonesia just after the war between Christians and Muslims. We visited both Muslims and Christians and encouraged them to be present in the peace process. We saw the result of religious intoleranceseveral thousand people were killed and many churches, even mosques, and houses burned. There are also people in prison, like Sijjad Masih, a young Adventist, twenty-eight years old, accused of blasphemy. He is innocent but was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. In Pakistan and other countries, the blasphemy law and the law on apostasy create a very oppressive situation for religious minorities. Every time we travel, we meet with authorities and religious leaders and see what we can do to help. Sometimes just our presence can help.
DM: I want to bring us to the International Religious Liberty Association, which just celebrated its 125th anniversary. Tell us who can belong and how you see that organization making a difference.
JG: The first association organized by the church was the National Religious Liberty Association in 1888. They then spread outside of North America and became the International Religious Liberty Association in 1893. In 1946, the association decided to open its membership to all who are really concerned and want to defend this principle, not only Adventists. And if you believe in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you can become a member of the association. We have held, in just the last fifteen to eighteen years, four world congresses. The first one had about 320 to 350 participants. The last one had nine hundred participants. Fifty religious freedom experts—most of them non-Adventist—were invited, along with government officials. It’s a fabulous opportunity to meet officials of government, talk together, and focus on religious freedom.
DL: The Liberty Dinner is one of the highlights on our calendar every year. The dinner, cosponsored by Liberty Magazine and the North American Religious Liberty Association, promotes religious freedom for all people. It is also a great vehicle for us to share with government officials and diplomats in Washington, DC, a bit about the church and the IRLA. We are making plans for what will be our twelfth Liberty Dinner. Through these years, we have been fortunate to have a very distinguished group of speakers address our attendees. Of course, we make sure the dinner is not seen as a political event, so we invite speakers from both ends of the political spectrum. Past speakers have included Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John McCain, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, and US Senate Chaplain Barry Black. A recent article on the dinner noted that lit©the leading religious liberty event in Washington,” so we’re extremely proud of that.
We usually anticipate around 180 to 200 people including representatives from the White House, members of Congress, congressional staff, ambassadors, and senior embassy staff as well; plus leaders from many of the faith communities in the Washington, DC, area. We typically have many embassies represented, which provide us with an excellent opportunity to develop relationships.
DM: Tell us about your annual think tank on religious freedom.
JG: We organized a meeting of experts in 1999 that became one of the top annual think tanks of religious freedom. Every year we have this meeting with twenty-five to thirty experts. And, something that is really unique—our meeting of experts is invited by secular universities. We were invited to the University of Sydney, Toronto, and this year we will go to Athens. Of course, the majority of experts in this group are university professors. A book is being published soon by a professor in Spain about the International Religious Liberty Association.
GD: The meeting of experts is like a think tank for religious freedom. The word expert is not meant to be self-serving. Prominent people from several universities come. This will be number fifteen. We meet people who think differently, but we have common ground as far as religious freedom is concerned. You find people of faith or of not faith there. We are able to mingle with people operating at the cutting edge of research, who make needed intellectual contributions. We need to relate to people at all levels of expertise. And I think the meeting of experts allows us to mingle with thinkers, who in turn have an opportunity to know us and for us to know them. We produce mostly joint statements out of those meetings. We look where we have common values with people and build upon those common values.
We choose themes by observing the world—what are the trends? I am working with professors in France and Madrid, of different faiths by the way. We work on a common value, from which we can build. Being humane together, even if we are from different faith traditions or of no faith tradition, I think it’s a tremendous lesson.
WH: Why do you hold festivals of religious freedom?
JG: When religious freedom is threatened, everyone is affected. Instead of having just a confidential meeting, we enlarge and try to reach people; so we started a mass festival. The concept is simple: we believe the time has come to say “Thank you” for religious freedom. It means, in every country where we have religious freedom, we should say “Thank You” to both God and the government. It becomes an event where many believers realize that if they were born in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, now, they would be in prison. Fortunately, they are living in countries where they have religious freedom. When we have large meetings of fifteen thousand to forty-five thousand people, people love religious freedom and want to keep it. From 2006 to 2013, two hundred thousand people attended our festivals. More than fifteen festivals are planned in 2014. No churches or religious organizations have held such mass meetings in the past. It has changed the image of religious freedom, which is no longer a meeting led by a group of experts, but by all people.
GD: The biblical principle behind this is “encourage the good” so that the people can be motivated and continue to promote it.
JG: And everywhere they have a festival; they want to have a symposium, a congress liberty concert, and other events. Because of the festival, the city of S13 Paulo declared May 25, the day of the festival, the Annual Day ofWorld Religious Freedom. It is the first megalopolis in the world to have its own annual religious freedom day.
WH: What can pastors and other local church leaders do to help defend and protect religious freedom?
DL: One of the main things they can do is help increase awareness in their local congregations. Many church members are unaware of the restrictions on religious freedom across the globe today. Everybody can pray for those currently being persecuted around the world. To be even more active, let your local representatives know that this is an issue that is very important to you. Even though you may think, Well, what influence can I have on a foreign country here in the United States? many of our leaders in Washington are very concerned about what’s happening throughout the world. Follow the many resources to keep up with what’s happening throughout the world. Our department has a Twitter account I manage every day. I read through the domestic and international news and highlight three to five stories of religious freedom issues for people who are interested in keeping up-to-date on a daily basis; that’s a great source to then share with your local congregation. So, please follow us on Twitter: @IRLA~USA. You can also watch our television show, Faith and Freedom, each week on Hope Channel. Check online for the broadcast times in your specific location.
JG: We have a scheduled Sabbath of Religious Freedom, the fourth Sabbath of January. Also, every church should have a Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director and could have a club of religious freedom. We can make a difference.
GD: I personally don’t think it’s going to get better, unfortunately, even for Adventists. Ellen White had a prophecy about religious liberty getting worse, even here in America. It is going to be terrible, actually. It is rare that she is that specific. But she also says, while we have this freedom, we ought to do all we can to reach out to people. And that is the time right now.
JG: She also said that we shall lift up the banner of truth and religious liberty in these last days. When people ask why we are defending religious freedom, I often answer, “Because it’s a gift of God, a human right, a sign of the kingdom of God, and a prophetic message.” As Ganoune said, we know that one day we will lose our freedom. Some people say, Qf you know that, why are you doing this?” I answer, 3We know that people will die, but we build hospitals. We do that because we know that’s part of the kingdom of God, to protect religious freedom for all. Religious freedom is one of the best expressions of God’s character of love.