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Religious Liberty Protection Comes From Grass Roots, Experts Say

Government important, but people "on the ground" essential (Posted April 25, 2012)

BY MARK A. KELLNER, News Editor, Adventist Review, reporting from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Whether it's involvement in local religious freedom issues or helping to change the situation for believers in Laos or Vietnam, the presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private citizens is essential to the promotion and protection of religious liberty, three experts said April 24, 2012.

Speaking at the International Religious Liberty Association's Seventh World Congress in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, Knox Thames, Director of Policy and Research for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF); Ambassador Robert Seiple, president of the Center for America's First Freedom and an IRLA board member; and Richard T. Foltin, Director of National and Legislative Affairs for the American Jewish Committee each stressed the need for grass-roots efforts in support of religious liberty for all.

"Government can be very, very helpful. But ultimately it has to be people who are committed to this for the duration," Seiple said. "Never expect more from the government than the government is prepared to do."
Thames noted the CIRF exists to inform Congress and the executive branch on issues of religious freedom throughout the world. Since the body's staff and budget are limited, he said they were "delighted to partner with NGOs and religious organizations" in monitoring the situation on the ground overseas.

"Religious freedom stands atop other human rights," Thames said. "It really is the 'canary in the coal mine.'"

And while different organizations can and do unite on common issues, having "space" for differences of opinion is also vital, Foltin said.

"To get your voice heard, you have to leverage your presence by working in coalition," Foltin explained. "What's important is that there's a relationship that allows us to work together," he added, noting that the AJC's constituency, by and large, has a different view of "establishment" issues -- those where government can be involved in religious activity -- than some groups it partners with on freedom of religious expression matters.

On the expression side, Foltin said, the "principal issue [in the United States today] is the Workplace Religious Freedom Act -- a bill that would protect the ability of people of faith to observe their religion. The [current non-discrimination] law is not as effective as it ought to be. One of these days we'll see that enacted as well, God willing."

And whether the issue is local or global, Seiple added, achieving results can often take far longer than expected. He noted that it was only after decades of work in Laos and Vietnam that NGOs began to see positive results. And in some countries, where an American diplomat may have difficulty in presenting a wide range of issues, the NGO that focuses on global engagement in the religious freedom sphere can often be more warmly received.

"Then you will know you have arrived, when you exchange pictures of your grandchildren with a hostile enemy," Seiple said.

All three also stressed the need for NGOs and religious liberty advocates to get young people involved. Thames reaches out via the Twitter messaging service; Seiple commended youth involvement; and Foltin observed that it's also necessary to let young people express differing opinions as part of the engagement process.