The African Forum for Religious and Spirituality Liberty (AFRSL) was solemnly inaugurated in Cape Town. It has the potentiality of changing the history of religious freedom on the continent.
by Massimo Introvigne
On December 8, 2023, history was made at the Century City Convention Center in Cape Town, South Africa, as a new organization was born that vowed to protect freedom of religion or belief in the African continent. Inspired by the example of, and in cooperation with, FOREF (Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe), with which a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed, the African Forum for Religious and Spirituality Liberty (AFRSL) was solemnly inaugurated.
It was a typical African event, full of passion and excitement. Representatives of dozens of different religious traditions attended with their multicolored garbs, from bishops of old and new forms of Christianity to traditional African healers. Some, however, wore just a clerical collar or a jacket and a tie. Three kings and other members of South African royal families also attended, as well as politicians and representatives of governmental institutions, including leaders of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), which “Bitter Winter” had criticized for a 2017 report influenced by the international anti-cult ideology—but its willingness to dialogue with the new organization is certainly welcome. Several mainline national media were also present and reported about the event.
After an opening inter-religious prayer, Rosita Šorytė, who had been asked to serve as program director, introduced the conference. A former Lithuanian diplomat with twenty-five years of experience, Šorytė reported how she grew up in the Soviet Union and was educated in schools where any religious interest was discouraged and ridiculed. Yet, largely by herself, she developed a connection with the inner voice of the sacred, which she always maintained and also led her more recently to an appreciation of African spirituality. As a diplomat and, later, a human rights activist this was translated into a passion for religious liberty. She gave several examples—from Japan to Argentina, France, and the international propaganda of media hostile to religious minorities—confirming that even in democratic countries freedom of religion or belief cannot be taken for granted. Religious minorities slandered as “cults” and attacked cannot defend themselves alone, Šorytė concluded. Hence the urgent need for organizations such as the new AFRSL, where religious and spiritual groups with different theologies and worldview can unite to protect their common right to freedom of religion or belief.
Aaron Rhodes, the senior human rights activist who serves as President of FOREF, could not attend the event due to health reasons but spoke about the history and aims of his organization through a video.
FOREF’s Executive Director, Austrian journalist Peter Zoehrer, was present and outlined how FOREF operates in practice to promote and protect religious liberty.
The leaders of two other European advocacy organizations for freedom of religion or belief also spoke. Eric Roux, Chairman of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (EIFRF), and Alessandro Amicarelli, a London-based attorney who serves as President of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB), both told AFRSL that effective religious liberty organizations do not gather persons or organizations who agree on religion. On the contrary, they may vehemently disagree about issues of theological truth but, when they enter the common room of the religious liberty organizations, they leave their theologies outside. They only bring inside a shared commitment to the idea that states and governments should let religious and spiritual groups self-organize themselves as they deem fit, with the sole condition that they should respect the law and not commit common crimes (as opposite to imaginary crimes such as “being a cult” and “psychologically manipulate their followers”).
I spoke about the hidden snake that can jump out of the grass and bite unsuspecting religionists, the moral panic. I explained that moral panics, as studied by sociologists, are based on real critical incidents and crimes, which are however unduly generalized to attack entire categories and lumping together the guilty and the innocent. The fact that some Catholic priests are pedophiles, or some terrorists use or abuse the name of Islam is used to claim, falsely, that all priests are (at least potential) sexual abusers and all Muslims are (at least potential) terrorists. Criminal actions perpetrated by some new religious movements are used to pass laws targeting a large number of “cults,” most of which have never committed any crime. This may also happen in Africa, I concluded, where the tragic deaths caused in Kenya by a Christian preacher who promoted an extreme form of fasting have been used by a Senate Committee to propose measures limiting the liberty of all religions.
Rosita Šorytė then announced that the founders of the AFRSL had elected the first officers of the organizations, each a member of a different religious or spiritual group. They had unanimously asked IMboni Dr. Samuel uZwi-Lezwe Radebe, founder and leader of The Revelation Spiritual Home, a movement promoting African traditional spirituality, to serve as the first African Coordinator of the AFRSL.
Dr. Radebe graciously accepted the appointment, and delivered a short speech received with great enthusiasm by an audience that was told that AFRSL is there not to defend a particular religious tradition but all of them. Via video, Aaron Rhodes on behalf of FOREF also endorsed Dr. Radebe’s appointment as African Coordinator of AFRSL. Those of us who have met Dr. Radebe cannot but regard the choice as excellent. He is the leader of a fast-growing African religious movement, a promoter of national and international inter-religious initiatives, a charismatic speaker, and the founder of an organization that offers to its followers not only spiritual but also economic empowerment and hope.
Prince Thulani Zulu added words of support on behalf of his and other South African royal families who attended the event. His words reminded the audience that the launch of the AFRSL was a conference with papers by scholars, an advocacy rally, and a feast, all at the same time.
This is Africa. As Europeans with experience in the field of promoting freedom of religion or belief, we cannot tell Africans what is needed in their beautiful and special context. They will find solutions and practices based on their own culture and traditions. But we can express our appreciation for AFRSL and for its young and energetic African Coordinator and his team, and our warning that the same forms of intolerance and discrimination we combat in Europe may raise their ugly head in Africa too. Now, however, they will find AFRSL to oppose and resist them.