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My passion is sharing the unfolding of His-Story. I get pleasure connecting the dots of God at work through available people. “Intelligent design” is not only evident from the cosmos to the cell to the photon, but in everyday events in each life, as well as in the public square. The Psalmist wrote: “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done” Psalm 118:17. How often do we proclaim what we see God doing? Are we even aware?
G.K. Chesterton wrote: “I have always felt life first as a story – and if there is a story there is a story teller.” With a storyteller, there is a theme, plot and characters. There is adventure, drama, mystery, suspense, comedy and even tragedy. There is always another chapter. Every day is a new page. Our daily challenge is to figure out moment by moment what “thy will be done” means for each of us – really – practically!
The Swedish theologian, Nathan Soderbloom, wrote: “In the Kingdom of God, no one can see so long as he remains merely a spectator.” One reason we often don’t see God at work may be that we’re stuck in the bleachers looking at life’s parade passing us by. Do we anticipate God’s engagement? Are we engaged or are we merely spectators?
These thoughts rushed through my mind as I reflected on the past few days while hosting the Albanian Constitutional Court on their first visit to the US. I have told the story of the first invitation to Albania many times, but it is such a great story that I never of tire sharing it.
Thirteen years ago, March 24, 1992, my good friend, Roger Sherrard, received two faxes at his law office in Poulsbo, Washington. The first was from a friend in Vienna, Austria. The second fax was from a total stranger in Kona, Hawaii – 12,000 miles from Vienna whether you travel east or west. The two faxes arrived within ten minutes of each other and had the same message: Could Roger and I visit Tirana, Albania, meet the Minister of Justice and discuss ethics? When you receive two independent identical invitations to visit a city you could not name, in a country you had never considered visiting, to meet a man you did not know, to discuss the same issue, you do not wait for a third fax to decide. Roger and I have each been back to Albania 25 times since. It has been high adventure!
As you will see from the following letter to Albania’s Ambassador, there remain great challenges in Albania. We believe that God is active through His people in this small Balkan nation. Please be in prayer as the proposed law on religion is discussed in a nation where Atheism was the official religion from 1967 to 1991, as we continue…
Living in His-Story,
Founder & President
March 29, 2005
The Honorable Ambassador Fatos Tarifa
Embassy of the Republic of Albania
Washington, DC 20008-4012
Subject: Albania’s Proposed Law on Religion
Dear Mr. Ambassador,
It was our privilege to assist you in hosting Albania’s Constitutional Court on their recent visit. As you know, we have worked closely with the Albanian judiciary since 1992. There is much work still to be done, but no one doubts that the rule of law has made tremendous progress in Albania.
We have also worked closely with government officials and Albanian religious leaders from various traditions to ensure religious freedom. From my personal experience in being engaged in more than 20 former communist nations since 1991, Albania has perhaps made the greatest progress of any former communist nation in making religious freedom a reality. The evil days of Enver Hoxja’s regime, when the mere possession of a Bible or crucifix meant years in prison, underscore the importance of protecting human rights.
Recently we received a copy of a “Draft law to regulate relations between the state and religious communities in the Republic of Albania.” It has some troubling provisions. In 1992 the President and Prime Minister invited our input on a proposed law on religion. We suggested language drawn from the European Conventions on Civil Rights. The bill stalled in Parliament. In 2000 there was renewed interest in a law on religion. We were again invited by the President to give input. We proposed language from the European Conventions, but the bill died.
Articles 5 and 18 of the current draft raise particular concerns. Article 5 forbids certain “actions” including “insults against religious officials,” “sowing religious hate,” “denigrating or mocking of any religion,” “exhorting or encouraging, calling for hate and religious prejudice” (Italics added). These words focus on the subjective feelings of both the speaker and listener. Laws addressing feelings and forbidding broad categories of speech violate the freedom of expression and religion guaranteed in Albania’s Constitution. Except during the dark years of the Hoxja regime when Atheism was the official religion, Albania has a history of religious tolerance. Article 5 runs a serious risk of backsliding and possibly reintroducing speech police.
Likewise, Article 18, entitled “Creating New Religious Communities,” states: “New religious communities can be created by 500 citizens of the Republic of Albania.” Albanians in small traditions would become second-class citizens. The Constitution protects the freedom of religion and assembly of all Albanians, not just the large groups, but also those with 499, 50, 5 or even only 1 member. Preference for large groups and discrimination against small groups violate the equal protection guarantees under the Constitution.
A colleague who is an expert on human rights in Europe wrote recently that Albania’s ”current system is a model for the region. Albania has received international praise for their system and creating a specific law on religion would most likely be viewed as a step backwards. The Helsinki Commission has promoted the current Albanian approach with other countries in the region as a model to emulate.” There is a saying in America, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Albania’s current approach is not broken, but working quite well.
A recent Helsinki Commission article, entitled "Religious Freedom in Southeastern Europe," underscored the positive response the current system has received: "Despite shortcomings in other areas, Albania's system for conferring registration and legal status to religious communities could serve as a model to others in the region. All religious groups with at least five members and meeting minimal criteria may obtain legal and non-profit status under the Law on Associations, the same status given to any applicant group, whether religious or secular. Albania's neutral approach avoids the problematic entanglements of special religion laws common elsewhere in the region."
On May 28, 2002, Advocates International presented a statue of Mother Teresa to the people of Albania. Mother Teresa is Albania’s gift to the world. She referred to herself as “a pencil in the hand of God.” In my remarks to 150 leaders gathered at the dedication ceremony in the Presidency, I said:
The purpose of this gift is not only to honor this wonderful woman, but also to challenge Albania and all nations not to forget her legacy. Would the laws and public policies in Albania – or any nation – today enable Mother Teresa to do her work, or would they try to stop her with red tape and bureaucratic roadblocks?
Mother Teresa was free to do what she felt God wanted her to do. Government did not block her work. The challenge for lawmakers in Albania and in all nations is to work diligently for societies that will free future Mother Teresas to help the poor, care for the disabled, and watch over the sick.
Mother Teresa also said: “To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.” Albania can be a beacon of light in the Balkans for all of Europe and the world. But for the lamp of compassion to give a bright light, Albania must put oil in it by making sure that its laws and policies will encourage, not discourage, future Mother Teresas.
We believe that provisions in the proposed law on religion will penalize people of faith. It does not add oil to the beacon of religious freedom. Articles 5 and 18 as written will undermine the great progress Albania has made over the past 15 years.
We remain available to help Albania in any way you deem appropriate. Thank you for your thoughtful attention to these comments and your willingness to pass them on to others.
Samuel E. Ericsson
Founder & President
cc: President of Albania
Prime Minister of Albania
U.S. Secretary of State
U.S. Ambassador to Albania
Advocates International Board of Directors
Friends of Advocates International
Prior to their visit to Washington, DC, the 8-member Constitutional Court delegation spent a week at Pepperdine University Law School where Advocates’ Board member Ken Starr serves as Dean. Board member Roger Sherrard and his wife, Katoo, were co-hosts. The program at the beautiful Malibu campus included sessions on judicial independence, human rights, religious freedom, judicial ethics and, of course, Disneyland!
In Washington, DC, thanks to the help of Paul Magnuson, the Chief Judge for the federal district court in Minneapolis, the delegation visited the U.S. Supreme Court, Federal Court of Claims, Federal Judicial Center and Federal Court’s Administrative Office. Of course, we toured DC, its museums and memorials. All in three days.
On Friday evening, on the drive to the Chart House restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, the justice riding “shotgun” while I drove had served as Albania’s Ambassador to Germany. He is Albania’s leading human rights professor and an expert in European human rights law. In addition to being a current justice on the Constitutional Court, he also serves on a Law Review Commission that reviews all significant bills being considered by the Parliament. If there were one person in Albania that I needed to meet as to the proposed law on religion, this was the man. “In the Kingdom of God no one can see so long as he remains merely a spectator.”
Prayer is talking to God about what we’re doing together with him. Let’s continue to talk to God about His will in Albania.
April 1, 2005
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520
Subject: Albania’s Proposed Law on Religion
Dear Madam Secretary,
Advocates International was launched in 1991 as a global network linking lawyers and judges in over 120 nations, including 25 former communist countries. Our primary focus is promoting rule of law, human rights, religious freedom, and judicial ethics.
We have been active in Albania since 1992 and have worked closely with their judiciary and all prime ministers and presidents since that time. I have personally visited Albania 25 times and was invited to give input to their 1998 constitution as well as to comment on drafts of proposed laws on religion in 1992 and 2000, as well as this year. Last week, we hosted the Constitutional Court of Albania in their two-week visit to the USA. It was our twelfth major activity that we’ve had with the higher courts in Albania.
As to religious freedom, perhaps no former communist nation has made greater progress than Albania. A recent CSCE article applauded Albania’s approach to religious freedom as a model for the region. One example of the progress is that the official residence of Albania’s former dictator, Enver Hoxja, is now the facility where Grace Community Church, an evangelical church, meets and holds its services.
We have worked closely with Prime Minister Nano since 1997; he has always been supportive of efforts to protect the rights of religious minorities. We also understand that Prime Minister Nano agrees with the concerns we raised in the attached letter as to the current proposed law on religion.
We applaud the work by President Bush and you in promoting rule of law, democracy and religious freedom globally. Our prayers are with you.
Samuel E. Ericsson
Founder & President
cc: Albanian Ambassador Fatos Tarifa
U.S. Ambassador Marcie Berman Ries