IRLA World Congress: Reflections-Day One
Jonathan Gallagher makes a point
Day One and all is well. After preliminary formalities, the participants of the 6th IRLA Congress were anxious to absorb the thoughts and lessons shared in the first five seminars of the week. Paul Ratsara, southern African President of the IRLA, aptly described the positive atmosphere: "Our cause is just, and we will be victorious."
The purpose of this Congress, as with the former five, is to increase awareness of the global need for religious freedom for all people. IRLA Secretary-General, Dr. John Graz, referred to it as "a congress on religious freedom… not a religious congress." In the spirit of freedom, Ela Ghandi, Vice President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), and granddaughter of the Mahatma, stated that "no one belief can stand above another". She added that, "as long as we can practice our religions freely, there will be no problems in the world."
Religious extremism was condemned by a number of the speakers. Reverend John Oliver spoke frankly about the notion many denominations foster, in that they display an attitude that says, "We are chosen; you are frozen." IRLA Vice President, Bert Beach, expressed his concern about those possessing a fundamentalist mind-set, depicting them as "wearing a paralyzing ideological straightjacket." Words such as 'dangerous', 'domination', 'inflexible' and 'control' were used in defining what many presenters also called 'violations of human rights'.
Nokuzola Mndende speaks on African Religion
Professor Jaime Contreras of the University of Alcala, Spain, considered the unity of religion and government to be undermining the significance of the human conscience. In support of the concept of uniqueness, Nokuzola Mndende lamented the yet-to-be liberated African Traditional Religion: African Traditionalists are publicly represented by Christian spokespersons, she said. "If we are talking about religious freedom, let indigenous religions speak for themselves; don't speak for them."
In true South African approach, Professor Aslam Fataar of the University of the Western Cape drew inspiration from the Apartheid-struggle. His aim, during that era, was to "ascribe leadership" among disadvantaged communities, and to offer personal attention where necessary. "We need to listen", he said. Dr Mongezi Guma, chairperson of the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights of Communities, agreed. Discussing "diminished heritage" he emphasized that "people of various religious backgrounds are to be treated with dignity." [Lynne Odendaal/IRLA News]
Monzegi Guma of the Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Rights Commission
In the last session of the day seven regional IRLA Secretary Generals each gave a report on the problems they are facing in their regions as well as the achievements they have made.
Mutuku Mutinga who is the Secretary General for the East Central Africa Region, mentioned that Issues concerning Religious Liberty must change for the world to become a better place. In the East Central Africa Region there are ten countries. Most of the countries in this region allow cordial freedom of worship and assembly, except three. Dr Mutinga also expressed how many of us may not appreciate the term 'freedom of worship' because we worship freely. But if we were put in the dreadful situation of religious intolerance many people go through, we would realize how important Religious liberty is.
Halvard Thomsen is the Secretary General for the North America Region. It has nine chapters and its offices are located at the centre of Capital Hill. This region works closely with influential people in society such as Senators and Whitehouse officials, in order to maintain the Religious Liberty in their area. Active media outreach is syndicated across the country, to emphasize religious freedom. They try to involve and get speakers from all faiths and also host events to promote religious freedom. Thomsen explained that they are the core about values and they plan to continue to fight for Religious Liberty in their region and worldwide.
James Standish, Ela Gandhi (grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi), Jonathan Gallagher
The South Pacific Region is led by Ray Coombe. In this region there is tension between Hindu's, Muslims and Christians. Hindu Temples have been burnt down, court cases have taken place because of entry of new faiths and religious vilification has been made against Islam. Although this is the case Ray Coombe and his other colleagues have met with a numerous number of top government officials and are doing a lot to combat religious hatred and instead promote religious freedom.
Karel Navak is in charge of the Europe and North Africa region. His region has consultative status in Geneva for Human Rights. In this region they defend principles of religious freedom.
Japheth Agboka is the Secretary General for six main chapters in West Central Africa. This region has a multi cultural population of 358 million people. Constitutions protect rights but challenges concerning Religious Liberty still exist. Muslims and Christians are at conflict and this has resulted in many deaths and burning of a numerous number of worship places such as Mosques and Churches. On April, 29 2006 meetings were held in Accra Ghana to attain and maintain Religious Liberty. To date Religious Intolerance is on the decrease in this region because of the meetings that were held.
Panel in progress
"In the South America region there are a few problems if not any with religious intolerance", reported Edson Rosa - Secretary General for the region. But this does not stop them from spreading the concept of Religious Liberty with the IRLA. He mentioned that in South America there are many different faiths and federal laws give citizens freedom of faith. They work with those responsible for making laws in order to uphold Religious Liberty. They have also organized events such as big music events with musicians from different faiths to promote religious freedom. Mr Rosa was pleased to report that in South America they enjoy the blessings of freedom of worship and that the IRLA is well and strong in their region.
Glen Mitchell, Secretary General of the Northern Asia Pacific region explained that his region has had many problems in the past with religious intolerance. Although these issues are still in existence, religious intolerance is slowly being combated through enforcing the principle of free worship and the building of churches. To conclude his report Glen Mitchell said, "In every land the freedom to believe must be enjoyed". [Jon Msimanga/IRLA News]
Photos by: Jon Msimanga, Otieno Mkandwire, Ana Gallagher