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Karel Nowak: A Legacy of Religious Liberty

Karel Nowak, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Euro-Africa Division, was a close friend of mine who tragically drowned on August 19. He was snorkeling in the ocean near Cairns, Queensland, Australia, on his way to attend the Meeting of Experts of the International Religious Liberty Association in Sydney.

I have only gotten to know Karel over the last 2.5 years while I worked for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department. Karel (pictured on right) represented the church in the various capitals of Europe — particularly Bern, Brussels, Strasbourg, and Geneva. He was the editor of the well respected journal Conscience et Liberte and the Secretary General of the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty.

I remember going over to Geneva as part of my duties and was really thinking that this work of representing the matter of religious freedom was a huge task. “How was I going to do it,” I thought. “There is simply too much. Where do I start?” It was daunting. I called up Karel and asked if we could meet.

In no time he drove down from Bern and met me at the Palais de Nations and took me to dinner across the street from the train station. We talked about the work of representing the church in Geneva. I was humbled. I soon realized that the Lord had His man in Geneva already — Karel. As I sat and listened to Karel’s story I could not but admire the Lord’s leading. The work of religious freedom was never going to be dependent upon one man, it was not about me or anyone else — it is the Lord’s work — and the Lord had prepared Karel and was using him for the work in Geneva for years.

Over my short time of knowing Karel we got to travel together — we were in Beirut, Bucharest, Geneva and Washington, D.C. We spent many hours talking about our respective families. He loved his wife and children. He was the proud father of three daughters all accomplished in their fields of study and work.

Karel, was a great churchman and he was a strong and effective advocate of religious freedom. I knew that I could learn from this man. I asked him what sparked his interest in the work of religious freedom. Here is what he told me,

My first contact with PARL Department was in the early ’70s when Pierre Lanares was the PARL Director for our Division. I was a young worker at that time and one of the few who spoke French. When Lenaress came to our Cechesolvakia Union, he visited often, I was asked to drive him to places and in some instances even to translate for him. I heard him talking about religious freedom and activity of the PARL. I was just 25 or 26, I never dreamt at the time that I would be involved, I was a ministerial intern and happy about it and that was about it. He would show pictures how he visited the prime minister of this country, and minister of that country and king of this country. In the car driving him back to the hotel in the evening after the whole Sabbath meetings I asked him a question.


“Elder Lanares, listening to you today, I just wondered, if I was tomorrow invited to meet the president of our country, I would not know what to talk with him about — what should I tell him? What’s the secret? What are you talking about when you are visiting these ministers?”


He laughed and he told me, “you know, it is very easy. Try to find always something to thank the person for — be genuine. Don’t make it up.” And he told me “When I am going to see a minister or a prime minister these politicians expect that when you want to talk to them they expect you to ask for something. Because people visit them only when they need something so they receive you with that mindset “what is this person going to ask from me?” When you come you tell them, “I came not because I want to ask from you something but I just came to thank you. Thank you for what you did in your country for this and this.” It helps and it has provided many opportunities.

I am thankful that Karel did in fact take the opportunity when he did. I had hoped that I would have an opportunity to learn more from Karel. I saw him as a mentor. Karel was humble — unassuming — more than willing to share what he knew about religious freedom.

Whenever an issue arose in Europe — whether the ban of religious headgear or Sunday closing discussions — it was Karel who was the point guy. As he walked the halls of power in Europe he soon discovered that on many issues the politicians were puzzled as to what to do on the issues of religious freedom. He told me, “Even in the circles like UN when I am meeting from time to time with ambassadors or other personnel from the missions some of them say, “’Can you help us?’”

Shortly before I left the work at the GC office I had an opportunity to sit down with Karel and ask him what he would say to the person who would replace him. What words of wisdom would he give. He had shared with me that he planned to retire when his current term of office had come to an end. I had no idea that this question would prove to be such an important question. Karel told me, “my understanding of the service I am trying to provide to the church is similar to the service provided by ADRA in a humanitarian area. I think that the global church needs three type of services provided by the PARL department:”

  1. the church needs to be constantly reminded of the principles and importance of religious freedom;
  2. the church needs to be known in the society as a community that promotes and protects religious freedom;
  3. the church needs to get reliable, correct information about the legal and social situation in every country.

The PARL department has two primary functions, according to Karel, first it is to provide information about the legal and social issues of religious freedom in the given country; and second, it is to be involved in creating a positive image of the Adventist church to the community.

As he spoke to me he was filled with passion — he was in his element as he shared about what he learnt from Dr. Nussbaum, the founder of the International Association for the Defence of Religious Liberty, who told, “…everybody that he’s promoting principle not interests.” While many in the church were keen on promoting the interests of the church “we need to go beyond that to have the larger picture to promote principles. If the principles are respected our interests are included. But if we concentrate only on our interests we are not credible and very easily lose the ground for our work.”

I could not agree with Karel and Dr. Nussbaum more. Karel applied this view in his work. While at the UN library in Geneva I looked up the term “religious freedom”. I was pleasantly surprised to see article after article from the journal Conscience et Liberte referenced. Karel continued the work of Dr. Nussbaum in editing that journal — it obviously has a prominent place in the field at the UN. One day while in the office of UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief the official I was meeting spoke very highly of Karel’s work with the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty. As I walked down the marble steps I could not but be thankful for having men like Karel holding the banner of religious freedom at the UN.

Karel continued with his counsel to his successor:

Promote these ideas and we need to repeat them all the time because the church leaders change and church members forget. We need to repeat that to remind them to get their support.


I think that our church introduced many years back the idea of Religious Liberty Sabbath and Religious Liberty Offering which is not respected in many of our fields. Although it is voted by the General Conference Executive Committee our Divisions, Unions, local fields feel very much to be free to choose from the list of special days and offerings what they regard as important and what doesn’t really fit in their vision or their strategic plan they leave alone. The wise use of the opportunity once a year to have access to the churches seems to me very important.


I would very much encourage our PARL leaders, at all levels, to look around them and to try to find key personalities in all levels of the state governments, in the judiciary, and especially among the law experts, sociologists, or other people that would be very likely consulted by the authorities in case of crisis. That seems to me to be really crucial to identify these people and try to contact them before we need them to develop friendship, to develop personal contact. Try to be helpful for them and then in case of need just try to use their influence and their expertise to help the church to defend the principle of religious freedom.


Then I would suggest that the PARL leader would need to think about increasing visibility of the PARL or the Church engagement in the area of religious liberty. It can be done in many ways, usually by organizing some sort of events. It could be a very very large array of programs, conferences, round tables, discussions, festivals or whatever. Just create occasions where the ideas of religious freedoms will be upheld and will be promoted.


Finally, try to create networks with other NGOs, with other churches, with other agencies that are somehow engaged in human rights and especially religious freedom — to support them, to help them to attend their events and also try to work with them in case we would need them and their support that they would help us as well.

This was Karel’s advice to the person who is to take his place. Neither he nor I had any idea that his successor would come in only a few months from the time he gave me that interview. I will forever remember our time together with the utmost fondness. A Godly man, an advocate of the principle of religious freedom has defended his last case before the parliaments of Europe — but his legacy continues.

—Barry Bussey was the Director of Legislative Affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington DC. He is now the Vice President for Legal Affairs for the Canadian Counsel of Christian Charities.

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