A n annual observance of State Religious Freedom Week in the Brazilian state of São Paulo took on special significance in 2020 due to the global pandemic and lockdown. The São Paulo Legislative Assembly, or ALSEP, hosted a multi-day meeting on “Religious Freedom in the Pandemic.”
Dr. Damaris Moura, a state deputy and member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brazil, chaired the event, which featured several national and international experts and religious movement representatives.
Notable participants included representatives of Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu and African religions João Doria, governor of the State of São Paulo, spoke at the event’s opening, praising Moura for her initiative.
“São Paulo is a state that includes the spirit of diversity. In this moment of confronting the pandemic, religious leaders must also speak out, not to stimulate conflict, but to understand that we need peace and [cooperation],” Doria said. State deputy Cauê Macris, president of the São Paulo Legislative Assembly, and Paulo Dimas Mascaretti, São Paulo's Secretary of Justice and Citizenship, also participated at the opening.
Among religious leaders who participated were Cardinal Odilo Scherer, metropolitan archbishop of São Paulo; Pastor Maurício Lima, leader of the Adventist Church in the State of São Paulo; ialorixá Mãe Carmen de Oxun, founder of several Candomble cultural centers, such as Ilê Olá Omi Asé Opô Aràkà, in São Bernardo do Campo; the Rabbi Gilberto Ventura, founder of the Synagogues Without Borders movement; Sheikh Mohamad Al Bukai, an Islamic theologian and leader of Mesquita Brasil, in the capital of São Paulo; and Rev. Mahesh, of the Hare Krishna Movement.
Pastor Helio Carnassale, religious liberty director for the South American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, and executive secretary of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) said, “It’s a privilege to live in a free country, with the right to belief guaranteed by the [Brazilian] Constitution, but we need to ensure … that these rights will be maintained for our children.”
Odailson Fonseca, IRAL representative in São Paulo, noted: "Intolerance is [actually caused by] illiteracy of faith, but religious freedom is the understanding of law, of mutual respect, and in practice demonstrates human greatness."
IRAL secretary-general Ganoune Diop, who also heads Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist world headquarters, noted the links between religious liberty and times of pandemics.
Diop explained how religious freedom was achieved in other moments of devastating epidemics in history, such as the plague of Justinian, between 541 and 544 AD, and the bubonic plague, in the 14th century.
“This is the time to understand religious freedom as a sacred symbol of the relationship that must be established between each human being, a zeal for human dignity. We must encourage governments to make this part of the fundamental rights inscribed in the national conscience. Every citizen in the world must enjoy this freedom,” Diop said.
Other speakers at the event included Guillermo Estrugo of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Gary B. Doxey, Associate Director for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at the J. Reuben Clark Law School of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; and Brian J. Grim, founder and president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, based in Maryland (USA).
Fighting intolerance is an important aspect of religious liberty said Karel Reynolds, director of the Word of Faith Christian School’s Holocaust Museum in Spindale, North Carolina.
“We have a generation that doesn't know what happened in the Holocaust, one of the biggest violations of religious freedom in human history. But its effects are still alive, with massacres all over the world, motivated by hatred and religious intolerance.” she said.
BYU’s Doxey asserted “religious freedom protects and strengthens other civil and political rights, protects conscience, spiritual dimension of society, generates social benefits, boosts moral ties and promotes respectful peace and coexistence.”
“Religious freedom is also about the right not to belong to any religion and the duty of these people to respect those who have faith,” added Guillermo Estrugo, international communication director for the LDS Church.
Moura, a longtime activist in the religious liberty arena, stressed that maintaining the separation of powers between State and Church is a constitutional principle. “On the other hand, it is the duty of the state to protect religion, so that both can contribute to the construction of a just society. If this right is not protected for everyone, it will not be protected for anyone,” she said.