One of the defining characteristics of the Religious Liberty Dinner, held each year in Washington, D.C., is its ability to draw together people of vastly different backgrounds to celebrate freedom of conscience as a universal value; something that transcends cultural and religious differences. This was particularly apparent at this year’s dinner—the sixteenth time Liberty magazine has joined forces with the International Religious Liberty Association, the North American Religious Liberty Association, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church to host the event.

Washington’s religious, political, and advocacy communities were represented at the dinner, held May 22 at the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., just off Constitution Avenue. Sharing the stage during the evening were Aykan Erdemir, a Harvard-educated scholar, human-rights activist, and former member of Turkey’s parliament; Holly Hollman, a U.S. constitutional lawyer and Baptist; and Norwegian politician Abid Q. Raja, a Muslim and child of Pakistani immigrants, who currently serves as deputy speaker of Norway’s parliament. Although sharing little in common in terms of background and experiences, each speaker emphasized one key point: that building alliances across social, cultural, and religious divides is absolutely essential in advancing religious freedom around the world.

“Selfie time! Abid Roja, deputy speaker of Norway’s parliament, in a lighter moment up with attorney Dwayne Leslie, legislative liaison and associate director of public affairs and religious liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
National Award for Religious Freedom recipient Holly Hollman, addresses the audience at this year’s Religious Liberty Dinner.
Keynote speaker Aykan Erdemir stressed the importance of building strong ties to bridge our divides.

Erdemir, who gave the evening’s keynote address, urged attendees to “reach out beyond our own close-knit communities, out of our comfort zones, to others.” This doesn’t mean compromising our core convictions or beliefs, he explained, but rather acknowledging our common ground and our shared commitment to freedom of conscience. Erdemir has long been an outspoken advocate for minority rights and pluralism: themes that have at times placed him at odds with some in Turkey’s political regime. He served in the Turkish parliament from 2011 to 2015 and is currently a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Raja, recipient of the 2018 International Award for Religious Freedom, was honored for his part in building a unique international alliance in support of religious freedom. In 2014, along with four other elected representatives, Raja cofounded the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The group now has more than 200 members from 70 countries—all elected representatives—who meet together annually and strategize ways to promote religious freedom within their diverse political environments.

In his speech accepting his award, Raja acknowledged that growing up in Norway as a Muslim and child of Pakistan immigrants wasn’t always easy. He said it’s vital that children be taught from an early age to reject religious and ethnic stereotyping and to embrace such values as tolerance and pluralism.

Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, received the 2018 National Award for Religious Freedom for her many years defending U.S. First Amendment religious freedom rights through the courts and through her writing and speaking. Hollman was introduced by friend and former colleague Melissa Rogers, who served under President Barak Obama as White House director of neighborhood and faith-based partnerships. Rogers praised Hollman’s ability to work with different groups and to build consensus in support of religious liberty.

In her acceptance speech Hollman said that religious freedom advocacy “reminds us that we are dependent on each other and on our ability to come together on common ground.”

This idea—of bringing people together and forging alliances in support of religious freedom—continues to be one of the driving motivations behind the annual Religious Liberty Dinner.


Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.