Freedom of religion and conscience and the right to public worship “are essential elements of our faith,” said President Henry B. Eyring during the 27th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium.
“We encourage government leaders not to unnecessarily restrict the rights of believers to engage in public worship,” said President Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Offering a four-minute greeting at the start of the symposium, held virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic, President Eyring said the Church and its members support governments in their efforts to take precautions to stem the spread of the virus. However, he added, governments and their leaders can balance the priorities of both faith and public health.
He expressed his hope that, throughout the world, people could come together to help solve the problems and challenges of this difficult time.
Participants from around the world gathered virtually Oct. 4-6 to discuss issues of religious freedom around the globe. Regional specific gatherings were also hosted this week following the initial global gatherings.
President Eyring participated as the first keynote speaker in the opening plenary session on Oct. 4. In addition, Sister Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, spoke during the closing plenary session on Oct. 6.
The BYU International Center for Law and Religious Studies celebrated its 20th anniversary under unique circumstances during the three-day conference.
Although the virtual format of the symposium limited the number of sessions and speakers, Brett G. Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, noted that the gathering allowed for greater numbers of participants than ever before.
The theme of this year’s conference, “Religious Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities,” was chosen specifically for this time when rights and responsibilities regarding freedom of religion are being increasingly questioned and threatened around the world, Scharffs explained.
During his opening address, President Eyring said the symposium is the world’s premier conference for religious leaders, scholars and governmental authorities to come together and discuss religious liberties. And this year’s theme “reflects well our faith’s beliefs in the importance of both religious freedom and responsibility to respect the rights and needs of everyone,” he said.
Highlighting the work of Latter-day Saint Charities throughout the world both to foster unity and provide relief in response to the pandemic and other ongoing crises, President Eyring said, “We seek to help lift the burdens of those in need in any faith throughout the world.”
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President Eyring was joined by Heiner Bielefeldt, a professor of human rights and human rights policy and the University of Erlangen in Germany and former U.N. Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief; Bani Dugal, a principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in New York; and Azza Karam, secretary general of Religions for Peace International, as keynote speakers in the opening plenary session.
Pulling from the teachings and perspectives of the Baha’i faith, Dugal spoke of the continuing relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written by the United Nations over 70 years ago. Over the years, the UN has increasingly recognized the important links between religion, freedom and human development as it strives to reach the vision of equality for all and freedom of thought and religion for all, she said.
“As members belonging to the same human family, whatever our beliefs and backgrounds, we are all protagonists who have a responsibility to work for the betterment of our communities. Everyone has an essential role to play in implementing fundamental human rights,” Dugal said. “When individuals assume responsibility for ensuring each other’s human rights, the foundation for unity will be firmly established.”
During the closing plenary session, Sister Eubank explained how the pandemic has forced faith communities to be creative and join together in new ways to address problems.
Sister Eubank used the Church’s ProjectProtect, which pulled communities and organizations across the Wasatch Front together to produce more than 5 million masks at the beginning of the pandemic, as an example for how those with differing faiths and backgrounds can come together in times of need.
“We were able to take that experience and then say … let’s try this in Brazil, in Mexico, in the Philippines, and everywhere we’ve tried that, it’s been very useful,” she said. “So the pandemic has forced us to be creative and has forced us to make relationships with people that maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Sister Eubank was joined in the closing session’s discussions by Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service; Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network and founder of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Midwest Foundation; and Viva Bartkus, associate professor of management and founder and director of the Business on the Frontlines program and the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.
Addressing a question about concerns over the limitations of the role religious organizations can play in helping serve communities beyond themselves, Sister Eubank said that, although there are sometimes conflicts in the interests of faith organizations working in the humanitarian sphere, the UN and World Bank have recognized that there are things that only faith-based organizations can do.
“Personal belief is such a motivating foundation for huge amounts of productive energy that are being given by people of faith and it blesses entire communities and nations in a way that other organizations simply don’t have access to do,” she said.
Speaking of the importance of organizational and interfaith cooperation, Bartkus said, “We must acknowledge at a very fundamental level, that our societies and the world’s most pressing problems cannot be solved only by business or government or faith-based charities, or even just by those who agree with us. The solution to difficult problems lies in the common ground we imagine and create together.”
Sister Eubank then highlighted four principles the UN uses to guide those involved in humanitarian work: Humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. She then noted that at Latter-day Saint Charities, they add a fifth guiding principle; that of volunteer service, which, she said, “is this ability to bond groups together to do things just for the benefit of their community that builds trust and friendship as part of the social fabric.”
If organizations, despite their deeply held religious beliefs, are willing to follow those five principles, “we find an area where we can communicate, cooperate, do something together, despite or because of our individual beliefs,” she said. “I think there’s always opportunities to be better, to do better, and to help each other. I think as organizations, if we believe in these principles we can work with each other to promote them.”
At the closing of the session, Sister Eubank expressed her appreciation for BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law Society, the International Center for Law and Religious Studies and the forums they provide to help bring people together for open dialogue. Such gatherings are foundational for building relationships and common ground, she said.