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Former Latvian president’s new faith bolsters tiny evangelical community

RIGA, Latvia (BP)–Former Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis’ nationally televised profession of faith in Jesus Christ continues to encourage the tiny evangelical community in the formerly communist country.

Ulmanis, an opening speaker and endorser of “Hope ’99” following six years as president, was one of the estimated 5,000 people who made decisions in response to gospel presentations during “Hope 99,” a series of evangelistic campaigns in Latvia last September.

Hope 99 was backed by Bridge Builders International, an American missions organization based in Oregon, and its Latvian affiliate, Partners Foundation, in conjunction with the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association.

The campaign included multiple choirs, speakers and evangelistic events presenting the gospel to a combined audience of more than 50,000.

“At the end of Dr. Palau’s sermon, an invitation was extended, appealing to any who desired to trust in Christ, giving their lives to him,” said Monte Erwin, International Mission Board missionary to Latvia. “It was at this time that President Ulmanis proceeded to the front and was recorded as giving his life to Jesus Christ publicly.”

Erwin and his wife, Janet, were appointed as missionaries in 1989, and he serves with publication coordination. The Erwins helped with mini-schools for the crusade, training lay leadership how to do ministry in print media.

Ulmanis, the night before his decision, was quoted as having said, “I have been looking forward to ‘Hope ’99’ for six months. But only tonight do I really understand what hope really means. And it’s wonderful.”

After years of atheistic rule and a brief period with a Lutheran state church, Latvia obtained its independence and religious freedom from the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

And partially because of the influx of “health and wealth” evangelists who failed to deliver, Latvia has adopted a cynical stance toward Christianity and most things Western, said Chuck Kelley, president of Bridge Builders International.

“Latvia is officially highly secular, with very few self-proclaimed Christians in public office. For example, the president said he did not know one evangelical Christian [in office],” Kelley recounted.

So the implications of the former president’s decision are huge, Kelley said, despite Ulmanis’ constitutional term limit ending shortly before “Hope ’99.”

“He is perhaps the most highly regarded and honored citizen of Latvia, and he is valued as a statesman whether or not he is in office,” Kelley said. “Whatever causes he chooses to champion will be furthered, and whatever causes he opposes will be hindered — not formally but through his influence.”

Ulmanis’ interest in public charities, education, youth and development programs leaves the door wide open for the gospel.

“I view Mr. Ulmanis as a potential bridge builder who opens doors for people [in the United States] who can serve Latvia well,” Kelley said. “Right now he is actively seeking God’s guidance.”

Southern Baptist churches interested in information about partnerships with Latvian believers can contact Bridge Builders International at (541) 929-5627; e-mail, [email protected] for more information; or by mail at P.O. Box 625, Philomath, OR 97370-0625.

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  • Jenny Rogers