Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs was the keynote speaker May 24 at the 10th annual Religious Liberty Dinner, which brought together leaders and officials from Washington D.C’s diplomatic community, government agencies, faith groups, and advocacy organizations to affirm religious freedom as a “bedrock” human right.
In a wide-ranging, often moving speech, Minister John Baird touched on Canada’s commitment to promoting human rights through its foreign policy, as well as his personal conviction that defending freedom requires a willingness to act with integrity, no matter what the cost.
Baird also spoke passionately about the plight of religious minorities worldwide, saying religious freedom is still too often “measured in blood spilled and lives lost.”
The dinner, recognized as one of Washington’s premier annual religious liberty events, was hosted by the Canadian Embassy and was jointly sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the International Religious Liberty Association, the North American Religious Liberty Association and Liberty magazine. The event celebrates religious freedom and honors those around the world who work to protect and promote this basic human right.
More than 150 people attended this year’s dinner, including ambassadors representing 17 nations and representatives from the White House’s Office of Public Engagement and the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. Dan Jackson, president of the Adventist Church in North America, gave the invocation, saying that Adventists have an unwavering commitment to defend the religious freedom of all people, no matter what their faith tradition.
In his speech, Baird warned that the fight to protect religious freedom is “not an abstract debate.” He cited the recent murder of hundreds of Christians in northern Nigeria at the hands of the religious extremist group Boko Haram and the impact of so-called “blasphemy laws” in some countries, including Pakistan and Iran, that restrict the activities of religious minorities. He also drew attention to the struggles of Baha’is, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Coptic Christians, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and others, who experience discrimination or worse at the hands of their own governments.
Baird received a standing ovation as he pledged that Canada will not only be a dedicated partner in promoting human rights, but one that will “lead by example.”
Baird is currently working to establish a Canadian Office of International Religious Freedom that will “promote and protect freedom of religion and belief, consistent with core Canadian values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
Two religious freedom advocates were honored at the dinner. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, received the National Award for his many years as a spokesperson on religious freedom issues to the United States Congress and the media. Canadian lawyer Gerald Chipeur received the International Award for his efforts in promoting religious freedom through his writing, and his work with the Canadian Bar Association and the International Academy for Freedom of Religious and Belief. Chipeur frequently appears in the Supreme Court of Canada and other Canadian courts to litigate cases focused on constitutional issues and human rights.
Speaking after the event, Dwayne Leslie, director of Legislative Affairs for the Adventist Church, described the dinner as "one of our most successful yet" in terms of reaching out to the diplomatic community, Washington's thought leaders, and forging new and valuable relationships.
Leslie, along with Melissa Reid, executive director of NARLA, was one of the main organizers of the event.
"This year's dinner provided us with an invaluable opportunity to raise awareness about the Adventist Church's strong commitment to freedom of conscience," he said.
John Graz, secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association, and director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist Church, spoke at the beginning of the evening, describing the work of his organization around the world in generating support for religious freedom through congresses, symposiums, training events and festivals.
He spoke about the need to support the principle of religious freedom—not just for our own religious tradition, but for all people. “I can affirm,” Graz said, “that when religious freedom is protected, it is good for religions, good for people, and good for the nations in which they live.”
-- Melissa Reid contributed to this report