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Religious liberty, evangelism, membership occupy BWA council

SEVILLE, Spain (BP)–The lone Baptist church in Seville, Spain, welcomed Baptist World Alliance General Council members for their July 8-13 annual meeting — coinciding with the 120-member church’s 50th anniversary.

Meeting in the church’s new sanctuary, 550 General Council members and guests from 65 counties attended the BWA sessions focusing on evangelism, justice, religious freedom and international organizational matters, such as membership applications from various Baptist bodies.

The challenges Christians have faced in Spain were recounted to the BWA attendees. Baptists were denied religious freedom in the predominantly Catholic country (approximately 90 percent of the population) until 1868. In 1939, problems stemming from the Spanish Civil War confronted evangelicals; churches were closed, believers were imprisoned and rigid restrictions placed on religious activities.

“I remember the times of persecution when we could not carry a Bible,” Jorge Pastor, president of the Spanish Baptist Evangelical Union, told the council, “when the police would come into our houses looking for a list of members.

“But the BWA was always on our side,” Pastor said. “That is why we have such a love for you.”

Modern-day parallels were voiced during the meeting in testimonies from a small group of believers from Myanmar (Burma) in the face of ongoing persecution in the Asian nation and from South African Baptist representatives recounting how they experienced healing and restoration after the end of apartheid.

Malkhaz Songulashivili, president of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia, meanwhile, reported on continuing attacks against religious freedom in his country, including a warehouse of Bibles the union had purchased being burned down by religious opponents earlier this year.

Voicing thanks to Baptists around the world for their support and for their protests to the government after the loss of the warehouse, Songulashivili appealed, “Please stay together and fight for religious liberty.”

In a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives, Asasut Nahapetyan, general secretary of Armenian Baptists, told of finding saving faith after being a Soviet soldier and, later, a Mafia member. “I felt Jesus Christ could love me like no one could, and since 1991, I have been living for Christ.”

Denton Lotz, BWA general secretary, noted, “We in the West need to rediscover a conversion theology.”

Otherwise, Lotz said, BWA programs “for peace, justice and reconciliation will be of no avail…. The call of Christ is a call to change one’s heart, to repent, to go in a new direction towards the kingdom of God.”

Council members approved a resolution on evangelism that encourages “all Christians to confess their faith in Christ and to engage in evangelism in every context.”

Concerning the global AIDS/HIV epidemic, Liberian theological student Olu Menjay underscored the crisis that has overtaken much of the African continent, and noted it is an “urgent issue” for Baptists.

“It is not only a health issue, but a health, justice and economic policy issue,” Menjay said, “and it is a challenge to the church to do ministry and mission in new and creative ways.”

Terry Rae, former general secretary of the Baptist Union of Southern Africa, called on Baptists to look at AIDS/HIV-infected persons with the eyes of Christ. Describing Baptist churches as “thousands and thousands of AIDS clinics scattered around the world,” Rae said, “Our mandate is [to reach] precious people that Christ died for [who remain] in need of Jesus’ touch.”

In a report on Baptist growth in Moldova, Valeriu Ghiletchi, a former member of parliament and president of the Union of Baptist Churches, told the council that the union has grown to 520 churches and mission points since 1990.

In Nigeria, Baptist representatives reported, there are now more than 6 million in the Nigerian Baptist Convention, not the almost 2 million as shown in the BWA statistics. The convention’s general secretary, Solomon Ishola, promised to give the BWA substantiation of the new figures.

Ten groups applied for BWA membership, five of which were accepted:

— The Lower Assam Baptist Group in India with 40,000 members, founded in 1971.

— The Bengal Orissa Bihar Baptist Churches Association in India, with 30,000 members, which dates from 1999.

— The Baptist Mission of South Africa with 1,800 members, started in 1903.

— The Canadian Convention of Southern Baptist Churches with 10,000 members, begun in 1985.

— The Self Supporting Kayin Baptist Mission Society, Myanmar, begun in 1912.

BWA membership now stands at 206 Baptist bodies.

    About the Author

  • Wendy Ryan