IARF – A Personal History

Richard Boeke, for 21 years minister at the UU Church of Berkeley, California, received the 2018 IARF Distinguished Service Award at the 2018 Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom. The award was presented by the new IARF President Robert Ince at George Washington University, Washington, DC , the afternoon of 30 August 2018. The Congress was part of <REIMAGINING INTERFAITH> co-hosted by United Religious Initiative (URI) and a dozen other Interfaith Organizations.

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The roots of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) go back to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of the World’s Religions.  One of a dozen Unitarians and Universalists involved with the 1893 Parliament was the Rev. Charles William Wendte.   Wendte led in organizing the 1900 Boston founding of the “International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Thinkers and Workers.”   With a half dozen name changes this has become the present day IARF.

Regular Congresses followed: in London 1901, Amsterdam, Geneva, Boston, with attendance rising to over 2,000 in Berlin 1910, and Paris 1913.  Openness to all “who are striving to unite pure religion with perfect liberty” was the “Free Religion” which inspired Wendte and others like Dr. Shin’ichro Imaoka, a Japanese student at Harvard in 1915.   Imaoka took it back to Japan where he ministered to a Unitarian Congregation and became principal of Seisoku Gakuen, a highly respected Tokyo preparatory school.  Dr. Imaoka co-founded Japan Free Religious Association.

Richard Boeke became a Unitarian Minister active in the IARF in 1959 after 3 years as a US Air Force Chaplain. This is his story:

I had graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1954 and was ordained as Assistant Minister in Atlanta where I was born. For three years I was a Baptist US Air Force Chaplain serving at a Bomber Base in Florida. During the Suez Crisis I saw 35 B-47 Bombers loaded with Atomic bombs, ready to refuel in flight and go on to bomb Russia. Reflections on Atomic War led me to read Albert Schweitzer. We mailed to Schweitzer in Africa a cheque from our Air Force Chapel. Later, after Schweitzer’s death I met his daughter who was living near my hometown, Atlanta. She was glad to authorize IARF to award a Schweitzer Medal at each IARF Congress in the spirit of “Reverence for Life.” (The 2018 award is presented to Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, Sufi Master of the Shadhiliyah-Darquawija-Aiawiya Sufi Tariqat, FRANCE)

Called as minister to the First Unitarian Church of Flushing, New York in 1961, I had a Parsonage with 4 bedrooms. For over 3 years I hosted two Kenya Students attending Hunter College in NYC. In the summer of 1962, I was asked to fly to Kenya to visit possible service projects. . For $150 more, a church member who worked for Lufthansa, arranged for me to I travel on from Kenya around the world. I visited projects in India, Including the Unitarian Church in Madras. Flying on, I met two of the saintly people who changed my life and that of the IARF.  In the Philippines, I met Rev. Toribio Quimada, founder of the UU Church of the Philippines, a Universalist who preached and lived universal compassion.  In Japan I met Dr. Shin’ichro Imaoka. For over 40 years he was teacher and Principal of a Tokyo High School which trained many who became leaders of Japan, including post war Prime Minister, Shigeru Yoshida.   Imaoka also served as translator for an America scholar who was studying Shinto shrines.   Imaoka became a friend and advisor to three IARF Presidents: Nikkyo Niwano (founder of Rissho Kosei kai), Dana M. Greeley (President of the UUA) & Yukitaka Yamamoto (chief priest of Tsubaki Grand Shrine).   The present IARF Vice President is the grandson of Konko Priest Toshio Miyake, also a friend of Shin’ichro Imaoka.  Years later, when Dr. Imaoka died at 106 in Tokyo,, I stood with Guji Yukitaka Yamamoto in a line of hundreds to pay my respect..

The high point of summer 1963 was joining the March on Washington of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1964 I joined a tour led by the ministers of the Community Church of New York – Donald & Vilma Harrington – to visit IARF member groups behind the Iron Curtain.  For these groups, the IARF was a vital link to the “Free World.”  At the end of the tour we joined the IARF Congress in the Hague, (where I met Jopie, my wife and mother to our daughters Elinore & Diana) .   At that point the IARF was “The International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom.”  We sought to change the name from “Liberal Christianity” to “Liberal Religion.”  Alas, the Canadians refused the word, LIBERAL as being political.  The compromise adopted in 1969 as Rissho Kosei kai and others joined the IARF, is the present name, INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.  Few noticed that the name written in Japanese said, INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR FREE RELIGION.

Is  IARF a community of interfaith friends or a Human Rights Agency? For 30 glorious years under General Secretaries Diether Gehrmann and Robert Traer, it was both.  Lucie Meijer led the Social Service Program, and IARF witnessed for Human Rights at the U.N.  Congresses were held in Heidelberg 1972, Montreal 1975, and Oxford 1978. Our choir from Berkeley, California came to celebrate at Great IARF Congresses in Holland 1981, Japan 1984 (including 8 AM service 6 August at Hiroshima), and Stanford University 1987. The Berlin Wall came down the Christmas before IARF Hamburg 1990. After the Congress, five bus loads of IARF delegates re-established Partner Church links with Churches in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Transylvania. . 

The IARF Office moved from Germany to Oxford as Robert Traer continued the dual programme to the end of the 20th Century (well reported in his book, THE QUEST FOR TRUTH 1999). Throughout its history the IARF has helped other international efforts.  The Oxford IARF Office became office for the International Interfaith Centre and the World Congress of Faiths.  In the 1970s IARF Leaders Nikkyo Niwano and Dana McLean Greeley joined with other leaders to found Religions for Peace a major force in World Peace efforts. .  The 1893 Parliament of World Religions was resurrected on its 100th birthday in Chicago 1993, while that summer with the IARF I joined celebrations in Bangalore, India and Ise, Japan.

By 2000, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), used the IARF network to recruit a Global UU Community including the Philippine UU Church founded by the Rev Toribio Quimada.     Thousands of new interfaith organizations, local and international, were being formed around the world. At IARF Budapest in 2002 a new statement of purpose was imposed leaving out words like “liberal religious community.” But the IARF Oxford Office was lost shortly after the beautiful 2006 Congress hosted by the Ven. Master Hsung Yun and Fo Guang Shan at their Buddhist Monastery on Taiwan (Awesome temple, great vegetarian food).  

The work of the IARF has continued in Holland thanks to President W. Dijkstra and administrator “Luke” Linewicz. Also by regional chapters in Japan, Britain, Europe and Middle East, India and the Philippines.   India hosted the Dalai Lama at the 2010 IARF Congress in Kochi, with over 700 delegates including 250 young adults. At Kochi we organized the IARF Peace Commission. Rev. Chris Hudson MBE of Belfast, Northern Ireland and I became co-chairs. We led an IARF/WCF Conference at Horsham in 2013 – RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY. I was on the organizing committee for the 2014 U of Birmingham, Congress. Rev Chris Hudson led an IARF retreat in Northern Ireland following the Congress.

. In summer 1990 Hans Kung told our Hamburg, Germany IARF Congress:

There will be no peace in the world until there is peace among religions. There will be no peace among religions until there is dialogue among religions.

American Poet Carl Sandburg wrote

There is one man in all the world, and his name is all men. There is one woman in all  the world and her name is all women. There is one child in all the world and the name is all children.

www.Iarf.net; www.theinterfaithobserver.org; www.icuu.net

Nikkyo Niwano, Lifetime Beginner; Robert Traer Quest for Truth; Marcus Braybrooke, Pilgrimage of Hope, 1992




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