International Association of Religious Freedom: US Chapter


Over one hundred years ago a group of Unitarians who were inspired by the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago, Illinois in 1893 founded the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Thinkers and Workers. They began the organization on May 25th in Boston, Massachusetts at the 75th anniversary meeting of the American Unitarian Association.

Being over one hundred years old, the organization has changed its name from the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Thinkers and Workers to the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom to its present name, The International Association for Religious Freedom. Names, of course, reflect social and cultural changes and for this organization, the name change reflected the growing number of member groups who were not American, European, Unitarian Universalists or Christian. At its beginning the organization was indeed dominated by western liberal religious groups. Thirty years ago there were no member groups from the Far East–no Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish or Muslim members and few women in leadership positions.

During the early years the international congresses were dominated by academic papers given by American or European professors or ministers. Once or twice a woman appeared on a panel but for the most part it was a patriarchal show in every sense of the word. The women sensing this reality as early as 1910 founded their own group called the International Association for Liberal Religious Women. Women’s participation and the growth of other Asian member groups are now established facts. Two former presidents of IARF were women, Carolyn Howlett and Natalie Gulbrandsen. The largest member groups are Buddhist located in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. One of these member groups, the Won Buddhist, hosted the international congress held in Korea in 1996. Their membership is over one million in Korea with international branches in many countries including the United States.

In addition to the Won Buddhists, IARF has 75 member groups in 26 different countries with representatives who are Buddhists , Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Jews, Humanists, Shintoist. Recent international congresses held every three years still have academic papers read but the major events are rituals, ceremonies, small group meetings that share religious faith experiences. In addition, there are opportunities to visit temples, shrines and above all, times for social interaction among the participants. The most recent congress was held in Taiwan where the Fo Guang Shan hosted the event at the Buddhist Fo Guang Shan Monastery.

During all the years of its growth and development, IARF has committed itself to sponsoring community development projects in cooperation with its local groups in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. IARF also has representatives at the United Nations in New York City and Geneva, Switzerland so its voice is heard for the cause of religious freedom at international forums.

In addition to all these activities, the IARF continues to ask questions about its legitimate role in promoting and maintaining religious freedom. Although strongly committed to their own religious perspective, all the member groups are willing to discuss and to share concerns about how we human beings can promote interfaith understanding and cooperation. Some of our member groups suffer from religious intolerance practiced by their governments and yet with great courage and commitment they become a living witness to religious freedom.

We IARF members are also uniquely committed to personal sharing and friendship. We are not primarily an advocacy organization although we do join forces with others to work on certain issues related to religious intolerance. We are not primarily a research organization although we do have a website listing areas where religious freedom is being denied. We are essentially a “community creating” organization sharing our hope for a world of religious freedom and understanding. We are a voice for religious freedom in a world where this precious freedom is too often denied. We cannot be silent or our children and their children will inherit a world of continual war. This voice for religious freedom is our IARF history and our present witness.

Reflections on the Origin of the US Chapter

by Richard Boeke, First President, US Chapter, IARF

In the summer of 1962, I traveled around the world visiting UU Contacts in Africa, India, the Philippines and Japan. As a result, when I returned to my ministry at the UU Church of Flushing, NY, I was asked to serve on the Advisory Committee of the UU Department of Overseas and Interfaith Relations, headed first by Max Gaebler, then by Max Kapp. I was a delegate to IARF 1964 and IARF 1966. In 1967, in response to a request from Peter Godfrey in England. I helped organize the 1967 IARF Conference at Columbia University. But by the time of IARF 1969 in Boston, it became clear that the UU Department of Overseas and Interfaith was going to be axed in the budget cuts that closed many UU District Offices.

By then, I had moved as minister to the UU Church of St. Petersburg, FL. From Peter Godfrey, I had learned of the British Chapter of IARF. I thought the time was ripe for a similar organization in North America. I wrote and phoned several colleagues. I prepared draft by-laws in consultation with Dana Greeley. When we met at the UU General Assembly, I was elected President of what was then IARF North America, and the new by-laws were adopted. Myrtle Crooks, who had been secretary at All Souls Church, New York City, was now in St. Petersburg. She became my one day a week volunteer to start up the US Chapter of IARF. Several times a year, we put out our newsletter, named INTERDEPENDENCE.

In the first issue we published a DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE. We prepared orders of service for IARF Sunday, which were sent to all members. We organized a conference at Concord. MA, hosted by the Concord UU Church, with Huston Smith as a principal speaker.

In 1972-3, Dr. John Godbey of Meadville became President and I became minister at the UU Church of Berkeley, CA. A few years later, Canada formed its own IARF Chapter.


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