First Religious Liberty Festival in Jerusalem Draws Hundreds

Freedom of belief experts address diversity, discrimination in region

28 Jul 2009, Jerusalem, Israel...Hundreds of religious liberty proponents from Israel and the Palestinian Territories gathered in Jerusalem Sunday for the symbolic city's first festival of religious freedom.

The event generated a "climate of good understanding" among attendees that organizers hope will spur increased tolerance in the region, said John Graz, secretary-general for the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), which sponsors festivals worldwide to encourage freedoms of religion.

Hosting the event in a city holy to three major world faiths -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- was particularly significant, said Graz, who also directs the Seventh-day Adventist Church's department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL).

Jerusalem Festival 2009
Left to right: Dr. Eugene Hsu King-Yi, Vice-President of the International Religious Liberty Association; Dr. John Graz, Secretary-General of the International Religious Liberty Association; Pastor Richard Elofer, President of the International Religious Liberty Association in Israel; Rabbi Ya’acov Lebeau, Director of the Fushberg Center for Conservative Judaism in Israel; and Pastor Harald Wollan, General Secretary of the European office of the International Religious Liberty Association.

While Christians enjoy broad freedoms and are allowed to conduct outreach on a limited basis in largely Orthodox Jewish Israel, treatment of Muslims is a subject of international controversy, according to the Religious Freedom World Report, a PARL publication.

Conservative Jews, who embrace a non-fundamentalist interpretation of the Jewish faith, also face hurdles to religious freedom, said Rabbi Yaacov Lebeau, who spoke at the event. Because of the dominance of Orthodox Judaism, weddings and other ceremonies conducted in Conservative synagogues are not fully recognized, he said.

"It could be very easy to be influenced by extremist groups and fall into exclusivism," said Richard Elofer, president of the International Religious Liberty Association in Israel. "Given the 'multi-cultural and multi-region' makeup of Israel, defending inclusive freedoms is a priority to ensure that doesn't happen", he added.

The International Religious Liberty Association in Israel (Haamutah Habenleumit Lechirut Hadat BeIsrael)was established in 1998 at the time of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its objective is to promote, defend and protect religious liberty in Israel.

Some 300 religious liberty advocates from Jewish and Christian communities attended the event. [ANN & IRLA Staff]