Fri | Dec 9, 2016

Our right ... Our freedom ... Let's celebrate

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Worshippers gather on Prayer Mountain, in the hills above the Faith Temple New Testament Church of God in Portmore, St Catherine, on Ash Wednesday. The prayer vigil has become an annual event for many Christians across Jamaica at the start of the season of Lent. - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer
Dr John Graz (right), secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association, shares a light moment with Pastor Everett Brown, president of the Adventist Church in Jamaica. - Photo by Phillip Castell
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Nigel Coke, Contributor

That headline captures the theme for Jamaica's first-ever Festival of Religious Freedom, an event centred around thanking God and country for the religious freedom we currently enjoy.

The celebration will take place against the backdrop of several reports which show an increased level of religious intolerance and restrictions globally.

In an article dated January 14, 2014 on the Pew Research Centre website titled 'Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High', the researchers highlighted that whether by government policies or from social hostilities, restrictions on religion are high or very high in 43 per cent of countries - a six-year high. And because some of these countries (like China) are very populous, more than 5.3 billion people (76 per cent of the world's population) live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion, up from 74 per cent in 2011 and 68 per cent in mid-2007.

At the National Arena on January 24, 2015, Jamaica will join countries from the six continents of the world that have hosted a Festival of Religious Freedom. It will also include a free gospel musical showcase.

Why is religious freedom important?

Because of the worrying statistics mentioned above, religious freedom becomes more and more important in the world each day. It is important because it is the first basic human right given not by governments or people, but by God - freedom of conscience - a freedom to make choices and to have our own conviction and belief.

Freedom of religion or belief is also intimately bound up with other freedoms, including expression, association and assembly.

Religious freedom can be more appreciated from the standpoint of the lack of it. Without it, the enormous positive impact of the church and religious denominations would be lost. They would not be able to operate schools, hospitals, and impact communities through humanitarian efforts, which have significantly enhanced the growth and development of Jamaica.

Even persons who do not have a religious belief or attend church would be affected because they are beneficiaries of the positive influence on society by the various religions.

Why should we celebrate this freedom?

The constitution of Jamaica allows individuals to exercise their God-given right to choose their religion and even have no religion, or to change their religion without being discriminated against, arrested, assassinated or executed for blasphemy or apostasy.

We are indeed grateful to our forefathers and those whom through divine wisdom have made it possible for us to be now planning this celebration. Indeed, successive governments have ensured that this fundamental right is kept over the years, and to them we must also give thanks.

FESTIVAL FOR ALL

Because freedom of religion is such an important aspect of a country's political, economic and social platform, it is important to anyone and everyone everywhere. This is why the Festival of Religious Freedom is for everyone - religious people and persons who have no religious affiliation - because all are affected by a lack of it and no single denomination or group can celebrate it by themselves, it is for all.

"This is not ecumenism, neither is it a unification of churches in Jamaica, it is plainly a celebration of our religious freedom and all who enjoy it are invited to attend and participate," explained Pastor Everett Brown.

The event is spearheaded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has been at the forefront of religious liberty worldwide since 1893 and has been at the centre of organising these festivals with other religious groups worldwide since 1995.

We celebrate because according to Dr John Graz, secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association, "The freedom that exists in Jamaica is an example of true freedom of religion. Religious freedom is almost a part of the culture of the Jamaican people."

We celebrate because Jamaica is the undisputed Guinness Book of World Records holder for being the country with the most churches per square mile.

We celebrate because while we do, millions around the world cannot and hundreds are being killed or imprisoned because they believe in their God.

We celebrate to emphasise the importance of this God-given freedom.

The festival could very well become the main catalyst for the much-talked-about religious tourism in Jamaica.