Freedom urged at Religious Liberty Event

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The March 2011 assassination of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, religious freedom advocate Shahbaz Bhatti, added a somber note to the Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, D.C.

More than 200 government officials, ambassadors, religious leaders, and religious liberty advocates stood for a minute of silence to honor Bhatti and the many others around the world who over the past year have suffered persecution, imprisonment or death for their faith.

His death is indicative of the pressures placed on Christians around the world who wish to follow their beliefs.

Religious freedom supporters and activists met at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel for the ninth annual Religious Liberty Dinner, an event sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association, Liberty magazine, and the North American Religious Liberty Association.

Pastor Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, opened the evening, saying religious liberty is part of the “DNA of the Adventist Church.” He reaffirmed the church’s longstanding commitment to promote such freedom for all people, no matter their faith tradition.

Members of Pakistan’s Taliban, who objected to his outspoken criticism of the country’s discriminatory blasphemy laws, gunned down Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, on March 2.

In an emotional address, Knox Thames, a friend and colleague of Shahbaz Bhatti’s, and director of policy and research at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, told the audience they could best remember this man of integrity by “making his death matter” and continuing his work.

 
Mr Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister who was killed earlier this year.  

“The assassination of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, religious freedom advocate Shahbaz Bhatti, is a great loss to the country of Pakistan and the world.  He was a brave and principled advocate for others and was killed because he defended the defenceless,” said Dr Brad Kemp, director of Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific. “His death is indicative of the pressures placed on Christians around the world who wish to follow their beliefs.”

Dr Kemp also a reminded those living in the South Pacific who have religious freedom, not to take their freedoms for granted.

“This may be the time to remind your own government of how precious religious freedom is by sending your Member of Parliament or government representative a note and saying thank you.”

Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. president Barak Obama’s nominee for the position of religious freedom ambassador-at-large, was the evening’s keynote speaker. She praised the work of the IRLA and called on all those present to recommit themselves to the effort of protecting and preserving freedom of conscience worldwide. (Cook was confirmed by the United States Senate as of April 14.)

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

Three advocates of religious freedom were also honored at the dinner:

 • Norway’s former bishop of Oslo Gunnar Stålsett 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 Baha’is, was honored for her 25 years of human rights advocacy, both at the United Nations and in Washington.

• Edwards Woods III, volunteer director of the Lake Region chapter of the North American Religious Liberty Association, received this year’s A. T. Jones medal for his grassroots activism in building up religious liberty support across Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.