Apr. 10, 2012 Silver Spring, Maryland, United States…Bettina Krause/ANN

Organizers of this month’s 7th World Congress for Religious Freedom say they’re focused on helping religious liberty advocates stay ahead of the curve in recognizing new threats to religious freedom and responding effectively.

The three-day conference, set to begin April 24 in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, is expected to draw more than 800 government officials, legal experts and religious liberty advocates from 60 countries to explore the impact of “radical secularism” and other forces that are thought to erode religious freedom protection around the world.

The event comes as research shows that global restrictions on religious freedom are on the rise. A Pew Research Center study last year reported that religious freedom restrictions increased for about a third of the world’s population during the last decade. The limits were mainly due to government restrictions occurring in a few, but populous, countries.

The congress will focus on the theme “Secularism and Religious Freedom-Conflict or Partnership?” which highlights an area of increasing concern.

“For many people of faith, the word ‘secularism’ carries a host of negative connotations,” said John Graz, Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association, which is sponsoring the event. “They may see it as a force that’s hostile toward religion. But religious freedom has historically flourished under a secular government that doesn’t play ‘religious favorites.'”

Other issues to be addressed at the Congress include the political and religious fallout from the Arab Spring revolutions, and well as continuing fears around the world of religious extremism and religiously motivated violence.

According to Graz, another emerging threat to religious minorities is so-called “radical secularism,” which casts religion as just another “special interest group” in society, and seeks to limit religious expression on the grounds of “protecting secularism.” He cites the 2011 “burqa ban” for Muslim women in France as an example of this trend.

Among those attending the 7th World Congress are government officials and legal experts from the United States, the Caribbean and South and Central America, Europe, Russia and the Middle East, along with scholars and human rights activists from around the world.

The International Religious Liberty Association was chartered by Seventh-day Adventist leaders in 1893 and is dedicated to defending and promoting freedom of religion for people of all faiths. The IRLA has non-governmental organization consultative status at the United Nations, and affiliates and partner associations in 80 countries, and is the world’s oldest association for defending religious freedom.

Daily news and video from the congress will be available at www.irla.org.

Image by Image by ANN. Courtesy IRLA

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