BOLOGNA, Italy — On Monday morning, Sept. 13, Elder Ronald A. Rasband strode up the Via dell’Indipendenza in Bologna, Italy, past the famous 450-year-old Fountain of Neptune and into a medieval palace.
There, the member of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared to the G20 Interfaith Forum that the world’s 5 billion people of faith need to unite against religious persecution and for religious freedom.
This is the fourth consecutive year an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has addressed the G20 Interfaith Forum, which annually brings together a remarkable mix of faith leaders, government officials and humanitarian networks equipped to respond to global problems and promote understanding.
The membership of G20, or Group of 20, represents the European Union and 19 of the world’s most developed or developing nations.
”My assignment to be here was given to me by the First Presidency of the Church,” Elder Rasband said. “That should signal that religious freedom is taken so seriously by the leaders of the Church.”
Elder Rasband leveraged his time at the forum to forge new relationships for the Church or build on developing the Church’s relationships with leaders from the Sudan, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, the Greek Orthodox Church, Religions for Peace International and the International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. He was joined in those meetings by Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church Communication Department, and Sister Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency.
President Russell M. Nelson originated or has strengthened many of those relationships, meeting with leaders who visit Salt Lake City, Elder Rasband said. Others began or have been nurtured when Church leaders have visited other countries.
“Our role here was to further them, and they’ll continue to grow years into the future,” he said, noting that working with others provides strength.
“We believe that to the degree that we can now be more than a single voice and the Catholics can be more than a single voice and the Greek Orthodox can be more than a single voice, that we can be a choir now,” he said. “Instead of being soloists in different parts of the world, we can be a choir, and we can put aside the differences in our tenets. We have differences, of course, but there are some things that we’re completely in agreement on, and that’s what we’re going to focus on together with others.”
Elder Rasband spoke in a session about freedom of religion for minority faiths. He shared the Church’s history as a persecuted minority whose members were “killed, robbed, violated and driven thousands of miles.” He spoke specifically about the extermination order issued by Missouri’s governor in the 1830s.
Read more: Believers’ ability to serve tied to religious freedom, Elder Rasband says at G20 Interfaith Forum
“Yes, ladies and gentlemen, an extermination order in the United States of America,” he said, drawing audible gasps from the international audience in the Palazzo Re Enzo, a 775-year-old red-brick palace where sessions were held in long, echoing halls.
“Once a very persecuted minority, today we reach out to others around the world in partnership and relationship,” he continued. “Like the lowly mustard seed described by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, today we are a tree with branches that extend refuge and succor to many.”
Elder Rasband and Elder Gerard attended the G20 Interfaith Forum for the first time.
“I think it’s a very impressive forum, because over time it’s built credibility and stature,” Elder Gerard said. “Hopefully some of this great work with the interfaith community will translate more into the parliamentary component of the discussion, meaning policymakers, heads of state, serious leaders around the world who realize the role of faith (will) not only help us protect the freedom of religion but have an opportunity to understand who we are.”
Sister Eubank participated in the forum for the seventh time. She sounded an alarm about an exploding crisis of world hunger during a session focused on children and hunger.
The power of faith groups in preventing hunger through food development, Sister Eubank emphasizes at G20 Interfaith Forum
She said in an interview that while the forum has grown almost yearly, another development is equally important.
“Over the last three years, it’s become much more actionable,” she said. “They recommend policy to the G20 political meetings, and I think we look for opportunities to collaborate.”
Elder Rasband said Sister Eubanks’ frequent participation, the relationships she has built and the reputation of the Church’s charitable arm benefited the Church’s delegation to the interfaith forum.
“We’ll walk into a meeting and people will gravitate towards Sister Eubank because they know her,” he said, “and they know the good work that Latter-day Saint Charities has done, not only the fact she’s been here, but the actionable items Latter-day Saint Charities has taken on all around the world.”
The Church delegation talked about actionable items in every meeting.
For example, the group followed up on a meeting President Nelson had earlier this year in Salt Lake City with Nasr-Eddin Mofarah, Sudan’s minister of religious affairs. The two agreed to engage in several projects through Latter-day Saint Charities, including kidney dialysis centers, neonatal care and self-reliance training.
“We have come to know The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its great spirit,” Mofarah told Elder Rasband when they met on Sept. 12, the first day of the interfaith forum.
“We spoke about the practicalities of these projects in the Sudan,” the minister said after the meeting, which he described as fruitful “as it follows up on the cooperation between the Church and ourselves in the Sudan.”
“It’s heartening and humbling to know President Nelson is following up on these projects,” he added.
Pope Francis, Slovenia’s president, Sri Lanka’s prime minister and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, all spoke or delivered messages to the interfaith forum.
“One of the powerful things about the G20 interfaith setting is that it serves as a reminder of the many areas of life in which religion continues to play a vital role,” said Cole Durham, a Brigham Young University law professor who is president of the G20 Interfaith Forum Association. “In our more secular world these days … there’s a tendency to forget, or forget to appreciate, the incredible role that religion plays, often an unspoken, an invisible, an unthanked role but vital role in furthering all kinds of social goods.”
After the forum, Elder Rasband said he appreciated what he described as a plum assignment from the First Presidency.
“I’m optimistic naturally,” Elder Rasband said, “But I’m even more optimistic after the visit to the G20 Interfaith Forum.”
Previous G20 Interfaith Forum coverage
- Elder Bednar to G20 forum: ‘Understanding religion as essential — reflections on the COVID-19 crisis and the place of religion’
- Here’s Elder Christofferson’s full talk at the G20 Interfaith forum on why religious freedom is crucial today