Jonathan Gallagher: Dialogue with the Adventist liaison at the United Nations

Dr. Jonathan Gallagher, associate director of the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church's world headquarters, serves as the church's liaison at the United Nations. His primary role is to promote awareness and concern for religious freedom, and to develop cooperative programs of interest to the church and the international community in areas such as health, education, ethics, human rights, and religious liberty.

Dr. Gallagher serves as deputy secretary-general for the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), chartered in 1893, which disseminates the principles of religious liberty and human rights for all people throughout the world. He is also the editor for the association's academic journal, Fides et Libertas (Faith and Liberty). In addition, he serves as treasurer of the United Nations Committee on Religion or Belief, a non-governmental organization (NGO).

As an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister, he pastored for seven years a local church in England–his homeland–, followed by eight years of church administration. He holds a doctorate in divinity from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Dr. Gallagher is author of seven books and numerous articles. He is married to Ana (nee Gonçalves) and they have two grown children, Paul and Rebekah.

Have you always been an Adventist?

No. That means for me that in contrast to those who have been brought up in the church, I know what the alternatives are. I've lived them. And I don't want to go back to them. I am totally and completely convinced about the Adventist Church, its principles, its values, and its beliefs.

Was there a particular person or event that guided your decision to become an Adventist?

In my last two years of grammar school in England, I had a classmate, Jean-Marc Michel from Mauritius. His stand for creationism during science classes really struck me first. At that time, you didn't challenge your teachers. When Jean-Marc did, one teacher resorted to the usual mockery: “In our next class, Dr. Michel will lecture on what he thinks is the truth about the origin of the universe, and life as we know it.” Jean-Marc did such a brilliant job that the teacher never asked him to lecture again!

We also had many interesting discussions about the Bible. One day he said, “When Jesus comes back.…” I replied, “What do you mean ‘when Jesus comes back'?” He said, “You know, the second coming, the return of Christ…” I said, “Where does the Bible say that?” I thought I knew the Bible. My parents were evangelical free Christians, and I had read the Bible since I was small. But we'd never heard a sermon on the return of Jesus. After he showed me the texts from Scripture, I remember my first feeling was absolute terror. That, then, transmuted into a better understanding, and the conviction that it really was true. Actually, my Ph.D. dissertation is on aspects of the second coming.

When did you feel a call to ministry?

I didn't feel a call right then. Actually, no one who knows me now believes this, but all through my teenage years I was extremely shy and introverted. I don't feel comfortable speaking in public. But after I became an Adventist, I believed that God wanted me to preach. By that time, however, I was already committed to doing a science degree, so I continued with that. It was during that time that I got married. The conviction then was that I should go to Newbold College, in England. But I wasn't thinking that I wanted to be a minister. I just thought I should know more about God. The call came later.

What led you into the work of defending religious freedom?

It goes back to concepts about God. I believe that freedom is the highest principle in God's universe. And for that reason our ability and right to worship and believe freely are paramount. If you are being compelled to do something against your beliefs, that is the highest violation of human integrity and dignity. It's part of the whole overarching Great Controversy theme. That's what Satan accused God of being a tyrant, a dictator, and not granting freedom and the right to choose.

Religious freedom comes down to fairness. I am convinced that God is fair and always will be fair. And we should try to be. Jesus said that persecution would come, but He didn't say that we should enjoy it, or just roll over and accept it. We should take issue with it. Otherwise, how will people know what the important issues are? There won't be religious freedom at the end of time. But for the moment, we promote it and defend it. Then, when the end comes, a clear polarization will arise so that people will know what the issues are.

What are some of your responsibilities as deputy secretary-general for the IRLA and treasurer of the United Nations NGO Committee on Religion or Belief?

We set up religious liberty associations around the world, under the umbrella organization of the IRLA. We also represent the IRLA at the United Nations. As the treasurer of the United Nations NGO Committee on Religion or Belief, I attend monthly meetings in New York with ambassadors and other representatives from the NGO community.

Two years ago, we had the opportunity to speak to the Human Rights Commission on behalf of the IRLA. We chose to address the problems of imposing the death penalty for conversion, particularly in Islam. We gave a speech, citing authorities from Islam to say that it's wrong. The ambassador of Morocco asked for the right of reply. He got up and said, “We would like to thank the IRLA for making it clear that the death penalty for conversion is not part of Islam; is not part of the prophet's original message; and all these countries that impose it do not represent true Islam.” At that point you think, “We can make a difference.”

Can you share with us an experience that illustrates your work at the UN?

Two come to mind. The first involves an official of the Serbian Permanent Mission to the UN. I went to her and said, “You've got this new law that you're proposing, and it's a terrible law.” She asked, “What law?” I said, “I can tell you about it.” She said, “No. Give me until tomorrow. I'll find out about it.” She called back to Belgrade and got the text of the law. I then sat down with her and showed her those things that went against their constitution, as well as against the UN Declaration of Human Rights. She made all these notes and sent them off to Belgrade. The law stopped.

The second involves the IRLA conference that was held in Trinidad in January 2005. We invited the prime minister of Trinidad to speak, and he graciously accepted. We received a courtesy call to have five minutes with him a couple of days prior to the meetings. At the meeting with him, we went around the table and introduced ourselves. He then said, “I see we have some doctors of theology here. So, let me ask them a question.” he said. “What was God's role in the tsunami?” I got the job of having to explain that one! He's a Christian, so we started in Revelation with the war in heaven. Then we went back to Genesis, and then we got into the whole Great Controversy theme of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. After half an hour, his staff were asking, “What is this? It was supposed to be a five-minute courtesy call, and here we have a half-an-hour Bible study going on!”

Those are the opportunities that are available, and I think we should want to take advantage of them.

What counsel would you give Adventist young people about how to best prepare for this type of work?

It's good to have some basic knowledge of political science, international affairs, and international law. But I think the most important thing is to have an interest in other people–to really care about them. We have to treat everyone as a human being, listen to what they have to say, and consider it. I also think it's important to want to share who you are, your faith, your principles, your beliefs. But it has to be done in a way that is not obtrusive.

What fuels your passion for religious freedom?

I met a 15-year-old girl on one of my trips to China. I discovered that this girl's father, an Adventist pastor, had been in prison since she was five years old. She had seen him only on occasional prison visits. I asked her what she wanted most in the world, and she said, “I want my daddy to come home.” That's when you start experiencing the pain that the violation of religious freedom brings. And that's why I'm quite happy to see out my time working for religious freedom.

Bonita Joyner Shields is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review, the general church paper of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Editorial offices are located in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. She can be reached at

Dr. Jonathan Gallagher's mailing address: 12509 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, Maryland 20904, U.S.A.