Religious freedom advocates in Europe are hoping an academic conference in Spain last week could lead to more recognition for the cause of religious liberty for minority faiths in the nation and surrounding states.
The International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty (AIDLR) and the Human Rights Institute at Spain’s highest-ranked public university held the first International Conference on Religious Liberty and Religious Minorities January 17 to 20.
The event drew dozens of leading scholars, political figures and lawyers—among them Seventh-day Adventists—to the sprawling campus of Complutense University of Madrid, a seven-century-old university in the country.
Speaking at the conference, Alexy Koshemyakov, head of the National Minorities and Antidiscrimination Department at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, made the case for establishing a specific institution in Europe to address religious liberty issues.
He also gave an overview of the latest developments in interreligious dialogue in Europe.
“Maybe this will open the door to one day have a day of religious freedom in the country,” said John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association.
About 100 law students from the Complutense University of Madrid School of Law, which hosted the event, joined attendees for afternoon discussions.
Much of the conference focused on finding the appropriate balance between the needs of religious minorities and those of broader society.
Dr. Jeremy Gunn, professor of International Studies at the Al Akhawayn Univeristy in Morocco, said some of the “biggest clashes” are within, rather than between, faith groups, as religious sects jostle for influence.
“There are minorities even within religions,” Gunn said. “Tolerance and respect must be the founding values of each group.”
Participants also discussed ways that governments, faith groups, academia and civil society can promote and protect religious liberty.
Belen Alfaro, ambassador-at-large for the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, highlighted the need for “a culture of peace that fights intolerance through dialogue.”
AIDLR President Bruno Vertallier agreed. “My wish is that we may establish new paths for religious freedom, tolerance and respect through dialogue,” he said.
Ganoune Diop, UN liaison for the Adventist world church, said remembering that dignity is at the core of all human rights, including religious liberty, is essential.
“Dignity is a sacred and divine seal,” Diop said. “Every human being has dignity because every human being has been created in the image of God.”
When the issue of public policy came up, Harri Kuhalampi, a representative from the Culture and Education department of the European Parliament, pointed out that personal attitudes toward tolerance, hospitality and respect are equally vital.
“Cooperation within communities is as important as governmental legislation,” he said.
Heiner Bielefeldt, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, had another reminder: religious liberty is dynamic, not static. When attention and awareness dwindle, so can religious liberties, he said.
The conference included a tour of historic Toledo, a city organizers called an “oasis” of religious tolerance among Christians, Muslims and Jews. Many synagogues, mosques and churches dating to the 10th century now serve as museums.
The Adventist Central Church in Madrid hosted a religious liberty concert on the final night of the conference, drawing about 500 community members. Organizer Liviu Olteanu called the church a fitting venue for an event spotlighting the rights of religious minorities.
Spain is 94 percent Catholic. The country’s 16,000 Seventh-day Adventists are among other faith groups that make of 6 percent of the population.
The International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty is a non-governmental organization based in Berne. The organization is committed to defending freedom of thought and publishes the annual journal “Conscience and Liberty.”