Sandwell - First Fesitival of Religious Freedom in the UK: "We Love Religious Freedom!"
A site of 400 years of religious and political turmoil was a fitting location for the first Religious Liberty Festival to be organised in the British Isles on Sabbath, 16 August.
In welcoming over 2,000 visitors to the Bethel Convention Centre, Councillor Derek Rowley, the Mayor of Sandwell, noted that the centre is close to Sandwell Priory, a place of religious worship – but also religious and political dispute from the 12th century onwards.Noting both the difficult international stage, and the need for tolerance in local society, Mayor Rowley welcomed the whole concept of the festival and was delighted to host it in his borough.
He was not the only politician to express delight. During a symposium the previous day, local MP, Rt. Honorable John F. Spellar, noted that the "increasing persecution of Christians being martyred for their faith is maybe in some ways the untold story" noting that this is "a major crisis of our times."
Together with Mr. David Jamieson, candidate for West Midland's police commissioner, and Councillor Yvonne Mosquito, he joined with an invited group of Adventist leaders to learn more about the significant issues of Religious Liberty (see separate report).
The Festival of Religious Freedom festival itself was a 'high day' for many believers and especially Adventists who had travelled from as far away as Scotland and Ireland to show solidarity with those who struggle to keep their faith in intolerant societies, but also to hear good preaching.
The guest speaker, US Senate Chaplain Barry Black, concluded his message by encouraging each attendee to affirm Religious Liberty in their lives by living out the message of freedom in Christ. While the sermon may hae been the highlight, the whole day was a balance of mmusic, worshiop, prayer and learning.
For Black, Matthew 25 and Luke 4:18-19, "confers upon the worshipper the liberty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to the marginalized." He argued, "True worship also grants us the liberty and courage to be prompt in publicly voicing concern and offering solutions to social ills which threaten human dignity."
While the sermon may have been the highlight, the whole day was a balance of music, worship, prayer and learning. Dr. John Graz, Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) began with a report on the state of religious freedom in the world underlining the new challenges and the recent events in Iraq.
Following lunch, Dr. Graz was joined by Dr. Ganoune Diop, Director of Adventist-United Nations Relations, General Conference Vice President Dr. Delbert Baker, and Attorney Dwayne Leslie, Deputy Secretary General of the IRLA, for a panel discussion ably chaired by Pastor Audrey Andersson, Executive Secretary of the Trans-European Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The day closed with a corporate commitment and desire from attendees to 'Thank God for religious freedom, thank the UK for religious freedom', and to work to maintain such freedoms both locally and wherever members have a sphere of influence.
The organizer of the event, Pastor Sweeney, Religious Liberty leader in the UK, said: "This first festival won't be the last. The time has come to show our greatfulness for the freedom we have in the UK and we want to keep it for all."
Photos from the Friday and the Sabbath meetings are available on the Adventist Church's Picture gallery.
· 'Liberty and Truth'. A full report of the Friday symposium.
· A BUC News video report. [Please note: Beta version. An incorrect label for Senate Chaplain Barry Black will be corrected in a new release later on Friday.]
· Recordings of the Sabbath sermon by Senate Chaplain Barry Black, Dr John Graz's morning presentation and the afternoon panel discussion will be available in the next few days.
[Victor Hulbert with Dan Serb / John Surridge]