Washington Dinner Celebrates Religious Freedom

Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, President Barak Obama's nominee for the post of Relgious Freedom Ambassador-at-Large, was the keynote speaker.

Ninth annual Religious Liberty Dinner brings together diverse group of leaders

More than 200 ambassadors, government officials, religious leaders, and religious liberty advocates came together April 5 to celebrate religious freedom and honor those around the world who work to protect and promote this basic human right.

The ninth annual Religious Liberty Dinner, hosted by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), Liberty Magazine, the North American Religious Liberty Association, and the Seventh-day Adventist world church, was held at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel in northwest Washington, DC. The evening was marked at times by a mood of solemnity as speakers paid tribute to those who have lost their lives in the cause of advancing freedom. The brutal assassination last month of religious freedom reformer Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, has shaken the religious liberty community, and numerous speakers paid tribute to Bhatti’s courage and commitment. A friend and colleague of Bhatti, Knox Thames, director of policy and research at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told the audience that the best way they could remember this man of integrity was to “make his death matter” by continuing his work.   

Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, President Barak Obama’s nominee for the position of Religious Freedom Ambassador-at-Large, was the keynote speaker. She praised the work of the International Religious Liberty Association, and called on all those present to recommit themselves to the effort of protecting and preserving freedom of conscience around the world. 

Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Cook said the path to living in peace with others involves learning to “listen to and learn from others,” especially those who think differently to ourselves.

Dr. Cook cited the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, saying “change is upon us” and affirming that it is the responsibility of both the United States and those who love freedom to do all they can to partner with countries that are reforming their governments so that freedom will become a central principle of their governing documents.

Dr. Cook ended her 20-minute speech with the words of an old African American spiritual: “Friends, don’t you get weary, for there is work to be done.” 

Three advocates of religious freedom were honored at the dinner. Bishop Gunnar Stålsett, Norway’s much-loved former Bishop of Oslo, received the Religious Liberty International Award for his lifetime of efforts in promoting peace and reconciliation between people of different faith traditions. Kit Bigelow, former external affairs director for the National Spiritual Assembly of Bahá’ís was honored for her 25 years of strong human rights advocacy both at the United Nations in New York and in Washington. Edwards Woods III, volunteer director of the Lake Region Chapter of the North American Religious Liberty Association, was this year’s recipient of the A.T. Jones medal for his tireless grassroots activism in building up religious liberty support across Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

Pastor Ted NC Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, paid tribute to all those present who were working to promote respect and understanding between people of different faiths. Pastor Wilson said that religious liberty is part of the “DNA of the Adventist Church” and reaffirmed the church’s longstanding commitment to protect and promote this freedom for all people, everywhere, no matter what their faith tradition.