A Report From the Secretary General, Dr. Ganoune Diop
A new phase in the history IRLA began in July when subsequent the retirement of Dr. John Graz, I was entrusted with the mandate of Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association. I am grateful to continue the work of Dr. Bert Beach, expanded by Dr. John Graz. I am adding bricks to an edifice that is already well in place with a rich history of achievements. Obviously, this is not a work for soloists; a team of people with various talents is necessary to fulfill our main goals. To this end I have asked Dr. Nelu Burcea, Attorney Dwayne Leslie, Mrs. Bettina Krause and Mrs. Gail Banner to bring their giftedness to IRLA.
I am grateful for the able leadership of our president Ambassador Robert Seiple. I feel privileged to be associated and to partner with him to continue to make IRLA a worthy contributor to the promotion religious freedom. The various functions of IRLA truly benefit from his wide range of experience. In addition to the contributions of many other friends and supporters of IRLA, I am especially grateful for the dedication of our vice-president Rosa Maria Martinez de Codes for her commitment to the work of IRLA. The team that contributes to the meeting of experts program has my deepest thanks. Nick Miller is one of these consistent allies and major contributors.
I would like to thank my associates for their dedicated contributions to the work of IRLA. Dr. Nelu Burcea who joined IRLA in October has already been very active. In addition to his numerous speaking appointments to promote religious freedom since he came to the US, he has also organized the yearly meeting at the Romanian parliament with guests including the prime minister of Romania, the minister of foreign affairs, and the former minister of higher education. Several other dignitaries attended the meeting raising the profile of visibility of IRLA. His work promises to significantly take the work of the IRLA to a higher standing of professionalism and impact. He is the kind of person who influences leaders. We are grateful to have him with us.
Attorney Dwayne Leslie continues his work as our representative in Washington. This year, he worked with OGC to file an amicus (or “friend of the court”) brief advocating for the religious liberty rights of a young Muslim girl who was subject to religious discrimination in an employment decision. The brief was joined by a diverse collection of 14 other religious and public policy organizations. The Supreme Court ruled overwhelmingly, in an 8-1 decision, in favor Samantha Elauf.
Dwayne has reported having played an active role in helping achieve passage of a bill granting a four-year reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. They had several meetings on the Hill to help navigate competing bills and other political interests. It was important that USCIRF be reauthorized so that it can continue to highlight the need to promote and protect those who are discriminated against or persecuted for their beliefs.
IRLA is privileged to have Mrs. Bettina Krause as Assistant to the Director for Communication. She is taking the work of IRLA to another level of expertise. She is doing an amazing work to bring up to date our websites, logo and various programs. Her giftedness expands to writing on a regular basis an impressive number of articles to inform a broad readership. She is also responsible for producing TV programs to promote the work of IRLA. Her contributions to preparing the 2017 IRLA World Congress are incontrovertible. The amount of work that goes into this tells about her dedication and diligence.
Gail Banner secures for all of us the administrative work without which we could not be functional in any reasonable way. She is to be commended for her consistent work and her ability to navigate from assignments to assignments coming from all the rest of the team.
Last but not least, I would like to thank our treasurer, Mrs. Daisy Orion, who is very committed to oversee that we keep ourselves within budget. Her creative ways to help us fund our various needs are very much appreciated. Her work for the preparation of our 2017 IRLA World Congress is welcome and appreciated.
IRLA Goals and Engagements with the International Community
A quote from our website may be fitting:
“A primary aspect of the IRLA's work is to ensure that religious freedom has the highest possible visibility on the world scene. To that end, we hold congresses, regional conferences, national symposiums, and local meetings—all aimed at making sure issues of religious freedom remain high on society's agenda. For despite the importance of international covenants and national legislation, without public support for religious freedom, any gains remain at the level of theory rather than practice.”
Accordingly, the overarching goals of our association are the following:
- To provide IRLA with more visibility in the international arena, among international and national organizations and peoples everywhere.
- To continue to position IRLA to a standing of credibility, trust, and relevance. (Our president, Ambassador Seiple, repeatedly reminds us of the importance of being relevant in today’s world and to being deliberate in attending to its needs).
- To be part of the global conversation and expertise on religious freedom issues. IRLA has much to offer. I would like to facilitate the process and the finding of forums to make IRLA’s various contributions a reality for the world to benefit.
Recent IRLA Activities
IRLA’s 17th Meeting of Experts
This intensive four-day series of presentations and discussions began August 10 and brought together an international group of 20 scholars, lawyers and religious freedom advocates. This year, we were hosted by the Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California, and our discussions focused on an especially critical and timely question: How can people with deep religious or philosophical differences live together without violence? Among those who gave thought-provoking presentations were Dr. David Little, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School; Reverend Canon Brian Cox, Senior Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy; Professor Cole Durham, President of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies based in Milan, Italy; Professor T. Jeremy Gunn, professor of International Relations at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco; and, Dr. Amal Idrissi, law professor at the University of Moulay Ismael in Meknes, Morocco. We were privileged to have with us also Ambassador Robert Seiple, former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who serves as IRLA’s President. The major presentations from this Meeting of Experts are being prepared for publication in the IRLA’s 2015 Fides et Libertas.
New Relationships within Pan-African Community
Earlier this year, I was invited as a plenary speaker at a landmark Pan-African symposium held in Cotonou, Benin. The “African Initiative for Peace and Development Education through Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue” brought together some 400 heads of state, prime ministers, political leaders, religious leaders, academics, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and other thought leaders from across Africa and around the world to explore how interfaith and intercultural dialogue can combat social conflict and violent extremism on the African continent. In September this year, a consensus document was released based on the work of the symposium, entitled Manifest for Peace and Development through Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue. This document outlines a 25-step blueprint for developing a better understanding between Africans of many different religious, spiritual, cultural, social and political backgrounds. The IRLA will continue to develop its relationship with this key group of African leaders, religious leaders, and members of the international community.
IRLA Supports International Gathering of Lawmakers in New York
In September, the IRLA was a member of the organizing secretariat for a unique gathering of lawmakers from around the world meeting in New York City. The “International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religious or Belief” brought together more than 100 legislators from some 50 countries to call for greater global efforts to end religious persecution and repression. This organization is new to the international scene. It was launched last year in Oslo, Norway, with just 30 legislators, who committed themselves to building an informal worldwide network in support of religious freedom. Since then, the network has expanded rapidly. The conference concluded with attendees issuing letters to the governments of three countries—Myanmar, Iran, and Vietnam. These letters highlighted specific religious liberty abuses, and called on each government to honor its obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments. Next year, the group plans to hold an expanded gathering in Berlin, Germany.
IRLA Sponsors First Madagascar Religious Freedom Festival
Also in September, the IRLA co-sponsored an event that brought together more than 17 thousand people in a sports arena in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, to pledge their support for religious liberty. The day-long “Festival of Religious Freedom” was the first such event to be held in this Indian Ocean island nation, and was attended by both community and national leaders, including government minister Olivier Mahafaly, who heads the Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization. Dr. John Graz, our recently retired Secretary General, traveled to Madagascar on behalf of the IRLA to take part in the event. During his five days in the country, Graz spoke to journalists at an airport arrival press conference, attended three academic lectures on religious freedom, and gave the keynote address at the Festival, which was broadcast by the national media, and met with Madagascar’s Prime Minister, Jean Ravelonarivo.
The IRLA was delighted to host one of India’s most experienced diplomats, retired Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan, at a September luncheon. During his 37-year career in key diplomatic postings—including a stint as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations— Ambassador Sreenivasan has been a strong voice for human rights, tolerance, and religious freedom. Ambassador Sreenivasan told guests at the lunch that “tolerance” and “inclusiveness” are two of fundamental pillars of civil society, and he used an old Sanskrit phrase, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”—or, “the world is one family”—to describe how people from different cultures or religions should relate to one another.
In October, the IRLA hosted long-time United Nations administrator Mr. Iqbal Riza, who is currently a special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and who has served within the UN structure for more than 35 years. “The world is at a stage today when the enmities of the past have not completely disappeared, and new enmities have appeared,” said Riza. He spoke about the “larger part of humanity that lives, perhaps not in subhuman conditions, but certainly in dire poverty.” In describing the goals of the United Nations, Riza quoted the so-called “four freedoms” first expressed by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941: “Freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; freedom from fear.”
IRLA Participates in Moscow Talks
A gathering of leaders from across Russia’s religious and political spectrum met October 29 in the Great Hall of Moscow’s President Hotel, and included scholars, public officials, and religious leaders representing the Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic communities. This Third International Forum on Religion and Peace, was jointly organized by Russia’s Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organizations, and Moscow’s department of National Policy, Inter-Regional Relations, and Tourism. It was supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, along with other religious and public leaders. The IRLA was represented by myself and my colleague Oleg Goncharov, who heads IRLA’s partner association in Russia. I was privileged to address the delegates and I spoke about the foundational place of religious freedom within the pantheon of human rights. While in Moscow, I also visited the national Duma to meet with various public officials responsible for church-state relations in Russia. We also met with Alexander Kudryavtsev, who heads one of Russia’s most active public organizations focused on religious liberty, the Russian Association for the Protection of Religious Freedoms (RARF).
Presentations at the European Academy of Yuste Foundation
Also in October, I was delighted to be invited to present at a unique three-day academic event on the campus of the European Academy of Yuste Foundation, located in the Royal Monastery of Yuste, Spain. For three days, a select group of students, researchers, and other grant-holders from universities across Europe, gathered in Yuste to hear lectures from experts in religion, law, politics, and international institutions. This course is supported by a broad partnership of social and educational institutions in Europe, including not only the European Academy of Yuste Foundation, but also the Swiss Henry Dunat University College Foundation and the OIDEL NGO, which promotes the right to education and freedom in partnership with the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe. Longtime friend of the IRLA, Dr. Rosa María Martínez de Codes, Professor of American History at the Complutense University of Madrid, was the director of the course. The lectures were recorded and are available on YouTube.
IRLA Co-Sponsors Romanian Religious Liberty Conference
In November, I joined my colleague, Dr. Nelu Burcea (recently elected Deputy Secretary General of the IRLA) as a plenary presenter at the Third International Religious Liberty Conference held in Romania’s renowned Palace of the Parliament, one of the world’s largest buildings and seat of the nation’s legislative assembly. Dr. Burcea was the key organizer of this event, which brought together Romanian politicians and thought leaders, along with academics and religious liberty advocates from around the world to focus on the pivotal role laws play in building a free and just society for people of faith. The papers presented during the conference have been published in the third edition of the Journal of Freedom of Conscience, one of Romania’s premier publications in the area of freedom of religion and belief.
IRLA Represented at G20 Interfaith Summit in Turkey
The G20 Interfaith Summit, held November 16 to 18 in Istanbul, was the second time religious leaders had gathered on the sidelines of the main G20 Economic Summit. meetings. Again, the event brought together academics, public leaders, and representatives from a broad range of faith groups, including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus to explore the role of religion and religious values in driving positive economic development. I was invited deliver a plenary address on the final day of the summit. The title of my paper was: “Moral Foundations for the Sustainable Development Goals: On Dignity, Freedom and Solidarity,” which among other things, developed the argument that religious freedom is a pivotal human right—one that is central to all other freedoms, and which is essential in tackling the root causes of poverty, and nurturing sustainable development. Other speakers at the G20 Interfaith Summit included David Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the United States Department of State; Rahmi Yaran, the Grand Mufti of Istanbul; Cole Durham, one of the organizers and, Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief at the United Nations.
Visit to the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
On December 7-20, I visited the African Union Headquarters at the invitation of the vice-chair. It was a special networking opportunity. I met with key leaders from the African continent. I am exploring the possibility of facilitating the expansion of IRLA group of experts’ work and contributions to scholars and leaders in the continent of Africa in addition to other continents Latin America and Asia. Our experts from Spain are making significant contributions in Europe and beyond. IRLA visibility ought to benefit every part of the world, for the sake of the development a culture of human rights in general and religious freedom in particular.
Planning for IRLA's 8th World Congress for Religious Freedom
This premier religious freedom event, which the IRLA convenes every five years, will take place in August 2017, near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The IRLA team is working to have all in place for registration to open September 1, 2016.
I invite you browse the IRLA website to find out more about this not-to-be-missed event.