Religious freedom provides the architecture diverse societies need to be healthy, Elder Soares says
‘We gain freedom by supporting the freedom of those we deem to be our adversaries. When we see that our interests are tied to the interests of everyone else, then the real work of religious freedom begins.’
RIO DE JANEIRO — Religious freedom is a duty to support the freedom of others, even one’s opponents, and it provides the architecture to help a diverse, dividing society remain healthy and peaceful, a Latter-day Saint apostle said Wednesday at a historic symposium in Brazil.
“Society is too big for us to avoid people we don’t like or perceived enemies we despise,” said Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“A pluralistic age like ours does not offer the old comforts of homogeneity. We do not have to accept the religious or political beliefs of our neighbors, but social harmony and stability require us to give them the benefit of the doubt. We have little choice but to learn how to coexist.”
Elder Soares, who is from Brazil, spoke in his native Portuguese on a panel with three other important Brazilian religious figures, a deacon of the Catholic Church and national Muslim and Seventh-day Adventist leaders.
Elder Soares held up Brazil as an example of how religions can coexist peacefully.
“While undergoing a dynamic shift over the years from Roman Catholicism to Pentecostal, Protestant and other churches, the population has managed to avoid broad sectarian conflict,” he said.
One participant arrived to the event’s opening feeling a deep need for the symposium to help her faith.
The son of Mametu Nangetu, the leading figure of the African-based Candomblé faith in Brazil, was shot and killed Sunday after people in Belém do Pará attacked an outdoor event hosted by the faith.
African Brazilian religions historically have faced discrimination and violence, said one of the conference’s organizers, Rodrigo Vitorino Souza Alves, head of the Brazilian Center of Studies in Law and Religion.
He said Nangetu is considered by African Brazilians as a very important leader in the promotion of racial equality and religious freedom.
“I’m here because I want to strengthen connections,” Nangetu said. “I hope intolerance will end. My culture is not demonic but ancestral.”
Organizers did not know of the death of Venicio Gonsalves, whose mother said he was known by the sacred name Taata Kumbelemkosi, until the start of the symposium.
The tragedy added poignancy and urgency to the panel’s comments.
Elder Soares said all people want to be respected and heard, to feel like they are welcome and belong.
“Religious freedom is as much a duty toward others as it is a right for oneself,” he said, adding, “We gain freedom by supporting the freedom of those we deem to be our adversaries. When we see that our interests are tied to the interests of everyone else, then the real work of religious freedom begins.”
He and Stanley Arco, president of the South America division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, both invoked the Golden Rule.
“Religious freedom follows the example of Jesus Christ, who said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” President Arco said.
That idea, Elder Soares said, “establishes a connection between the self and the other, between my experience and your experience.”
He also applied it to religious freedom itself.
“If you want your religious beliefs to be protected, you must protect religious beliefs that differ from your own,” he said.
Elder Soares built his address around a construction metaphor. He said religion grounds the pillars of society — from government to commerce, voluntarism to the arts, schools to civic associations — “instilling the whole with moral direction, charitable commitment and the protection of dignity. All the layers and dimensions complement each other.”
“Religious freedom is the architecture of a healthy society,” he said. “It keeps the diverse parts in place, makes room for the expression of conscience, and allows differences to contend without violence. Without this infrastructure, society breaks down into bickering blocs of resentments, grievances, truth claims and power struggles. Left to our own devices, people devolve down to their ancient protective instincts.”
The framework of religious freedom rests on a double foundation of law and culture, Elder Soares said.
“A fair legal system and culture of respect work together to shelter citizens from the storms of ignorance and bigotry,” he said.
The panel was the first of a three-day symposium on freedom of religion or belief that organizers said is the first of its size and magnitude in Brazil.
“This is a unique event because of the diversity and the high level of the representatives and delegates that are participating,” Alves said. “It gathers together for three very intense days an interdisciplinary group of religious leaders, academics, lawyers and professionals from all over the country and from around the world in a major Brazilian city.”
Arco laid out the historic Adventist support for religious freedom and pledged to help symposium participants.
He quoted Elder Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church — “Religious Liberty is in the DNA of the Adventist Church” — and himself said, “We believe forums like this one are very important. We are at your disposal.”
Another event organizer, Gary Doxey of Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, said Brazil enjoys a fervor for supporting religious liberty, but while there is a predominance of religious harmony, understanding can improve.
“This is a nice beginning for reaching out to increase understanding,” he said.
That resonated with Sheikh Mohammed Al Bukai, an Imam and the director of religious affairs of the National Union of Islamic Entities in Brazil.
Sheikh Al Bukai said peaceful living always starts with education. In an interview, he said Brazil is “a beautiful example of religious harmony” but that as a minority religion, Muslims here have to work to clarify their beliefs in the face of negative international propaganda.
“I’ve come to this symposium to reaffirm the duty we all have to emphasize religious freedom is sacred to all human beings,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, Elder Soares led Cardinal Orani Tempesta, the Catholic Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, through the Latter-day Saints’ new Rio de Janeiro Brazil Temple.
Tempesta was accompanied by Deacon Nelson Augusto dos Santos Águia, secretary of the Commission of Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue for the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro.
Deacon Águia represented Cardinal Tempesta on the panel on Wednesday evening. He thanked Elder Soares for the open house tour during his remarks on the panel.
He spoke plainly about the need for religious believers to follow the divine examples and scripture and practice tolerance for each other and all people.
“God is not the God of Catholics,” Deacon Águia said. “God is God. If anybody says I love God, but says, ‘I hate my brother,’ they are lying. If they hate their brother, how can they love God?”
He said religious persons who express hate are hypocrites.
“If we can summarize Jesus’ life, that is the synthesis. Love for God necessarily includes love for our brothers and sisters,” he said. “I’m sorry for stating the obvious, but the obvious is being forgotten.”
Elder Soares agreed.
“Today’s media environment pushes people to see these differences as a battle of winner-takes-all — a damaging worldview that says you have to lose for me to win,” he said.
Balance between competing interests is a more humane practice for democracy than war pitting one against another, Elder Soares added.
“In the political and civic arena, one way to establish the common good is to take a fairness for all approach,” he said. “Complicated issues such as immigration, sexuality, identity and religion call for extra empathy.”