WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Four years after pioneering the first church-planting program on foreign soil by a Southern Baptist seminary in conjunction with the International Mission Board, Keith Eitel is changing his student-recruiting strategy.
Eitel, director of the Center for Great Commission Studies and professor of Christian missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., says that in the wake of recent danger experienced by Southeastern students in Southeast Asia, he will ask students considering the master of divinity with international church-planting program:
“Are you willing to die for Jesus? The kind of places we’re sending you, you may be asked to die for Jesus. Are you ready for that? If you are, the program will help facilitate you being in the trenches. But if you’re not ready to face that, you may need to look at another program.”
The10 Southeastern students and their families who returned the end of May from a two-year missionary stint in Southeast Asia risked their lives for the cause of Christ on more than one occasion, Eitel notes.
“The road through World A is going to be a bloody road, and we’re already beginning to see it happen,” the prof says. “Missionaries are going to pay for it, some with blood, but the people who really are going to be asked to pay for their acceptance of Christ with their blood are going to be the nationals who become believers.”
Thirty percent of the world’s population, numbering 1.7 billion people, currently have little or no access to the gospel, according to statistics monitored by the International Mission Board. Known as World A or the 10/40 Window, this vast region is sandwiched between an area 10 degrees north and 40 degrees north of the equator and spanning from West Africa to Japan.
When Southeastern deploys its fifth international church-planting class later this summer, the seminary will have 44 student-family units serving in Central Asia. More Southeastern students are scheduled for deployment to Central Asia in 2000 and North Africa and the Middle East in 2001.
Eitel cites an e-mail he received March 17 from one of the students serving in Southeast Asia as an example of the dangers Christians encounter in areas hostile to the gospel and how those experiences strengthen a believer’s faith in a sovereign God:
“Going through this [life-threatening experience] was the most traumatic period of my life, Dr. Eitel. The previous 40 hours were spent in anticipation and fear. God’s presence was never closer, though, and his chastening hand was all over me. He showed me how much I loved my life. I was forced to seriously consider, if worse came to worse, whether I would think it was a fair price, and be satisfied to die this way when I could be home with my parents, family and friends. It was as if God was calling my bluff, seeing if the reality was really there behind all the words I had been saying all along. It caused me to really see that there are some things that are worth more than even life, and that I would be willing to trade my life for. The Kingdom of God is one of those, and to see it advance among the A people is worth 10,000 lives.”
In another World A region, a group of Southeastern Seminary students, alumni and staff witnessed firsthand the effects of Christian persecution in late October and early November while participating in a pastors’ conference in Baroda, India. The group was part of a leadership team attending the conference organized by Alpha Ministries, an evangelical missions organization based in Gujarat, India. Nearly 600 native pastors and church leaders attended the conference.
Finny Mathews, a master of divinity student at Southeastern and native of India, invited the group to assist him and his father with their church-planting ministry in northern India. Accompanying Mathews on the trip were Shannon Scott, a Southeastern alumnus and pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, Raleigh, N.C.; Rodney Baker, a Southeastern alumnus and pastor of Buffalo Baptist Church in Buffalo Junction, Va.; and Bill Bennett, the seminary’s chaplain.
On the fourth night of the conference, about 100 radical Hindus, armed with chains and sticks, attacked nearly 150 Christians while they were sleeping in a school building rented to house conference attendees.
Forty people were reported beaten and seven people were seriously injured. Following the assault, the Southeastern team was held in a hotel under tight security and prohibited from attending the final three days of the conference, for fear Americans would be targets of violence.
The violent persecution, however, did not quench the movement of the Holy Spirit. More than 80 people committed their lives to Christ following the incident, bringing the total professions of faith during the conference to 180.
Mathews reports that on the final day of the conference many of those who had been beaten returned in wheelchairs, wearing casts and hobbling on crutches, all the while praising Jesus that they had been counted worthy to suffer for his sake.
“After the attack, there was so much jubilation in the midst of persecution [including] shouting [and] clapping of hands, yet in America, we reserve all our energies for a ball game,” says Mathews.
Citing an observation by second-century church father Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” Bennett says Christians should expect to be persecuted. “Persons who are persecuted for the name of Christ should rejoice exceedingly,” he says. “Jesus was the first one to pronounce a special benediction upon those who suffer for righteousness’ sake.”
Bennett cites a report he received from a Baptist leader in Romania as illustrating how God uses persecution for his glory through the advancement of his church. Commenting on the effect of the new “freedom” in the Eastern European nation, the Baptist leader told Bennett, “Our churches in Romania have grown much weaker since communist persecution has ceased.”
India has a long history of deadly clashes between its Hindu majority and sizeable Muslim minority factions. But in the past year, attacks on Christians have increased dramatically even though they make up only 2.3 percent of the nation’s 960 million people. The number of attacks on Christians reported to police has risen from seven in 1996 to more than 120 last year.
Missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, were sleeping in their jeep in the Indian jungle village of Monoharpur, about 600 miles southeast of New Delhi, when members of a radical Hindu group broke out the vehicle’s windows and doused it with gasoline before setting it ablaze.
The grisly murder Jan. 23, 1999, of Staines, a native Australian, and his two young sons, ages 10 and 6, is only one horrific example of the brutal persecution that Christians are increasingly facing throughout the world.
Among other recent reports of Christian persecution in India are an incident in which Hindu activists exhumed a Christian’s body in Mathews’ home state of Gujurat, where 35 churches were burned between Christmas Day and Jan. 4, 1999.
One of the worst incidents reported was the gang rape of four nuns in September 1998 in Madhya Pradesh. The rape of another nun was reported in Mayurbhanj.
Christian persecution began to increase following the radical Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ascension to national power a year ago, but the government reportedly collapsed in mid-April due in-part to the violence against Christian minorities. The party claimed the prime minister of India as a member and promised to make India a world power by uniting its people under Hinduism and developing nuclear arms.
The collapse occurred on April 17, the same day 79,000 Catholic and Protestant congregations were participating in a day of prayer and fasting for global peace.
Believing in the power of prayer, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is urging all Christians to participate in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church scheduled Nov. 14.
Last year, nearly 100,000 churches nationally joined Christians in more than 130 countries participating in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The event received national exposure on media networks such as CNN Headline News and National Public Radio and in major daily newspapers such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
It is estimated that more followers of Christ have died for their faith in the 20th century than over the previous 1,900 years combined. A 1997 State Department report identifies more than 60 countries where Christians face the reality of massacre, rape, torture, mutilation, family division, harassment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and even death.
The Voice Of the Martyrs (VOM), a nonprofit evangelical, non-denominational organization, reports in its monthly publication that in Sudan, believers have been sold into slavery, physically mutilated, deliberately starved and even crucified; in Saudi Arabia, Christians have been arrested, tortured and beheaded; in Egypt, Christian girls have been kidnapped, raped and then forced to marry their attackers; in Pakistan, Christians have been tortured in prison, attacked on the streets and had their homes destroyed by mobs; in Russia, Christian schools have been seized and shut down by police; and in China, Christian church leaders continue to be sentenced to long prison terms in harsh labor camps.
Following a long and often contentious struggle to adopt a measure intended to alleviate the persecution of religious adherents in foreign countries, Congress unanimously passed legislation on Oct. 9, 1998, granting the president authority to issue sanctions against countries that violate their citizens’ freedom of religion.
President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, called The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, on Oct. 9 without ceremony.
Religious freedom advocates hope The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 will heighten the United States’ responsibility in defending the religious freedom of not only native peoples but also U.S. citizens traveling and working abroad.
Congress finally approved funding seven months later on May 20 for a 10-member commission established to report annually on countries guilty of committing or permitting violations of religious liberty.
The president is required to respond to a report due May 1 of each year, but he has options ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanctions as measures for dealing with offending governments.
Will Dodson, public policy director for the ERLC and a master of divinity student at Southeastern, says that while the president likes to take credit publicly for the legislation, his lack of eagerness to appoint commission members and allocate funding tells a different story.
Regardless of the president’s position, Dodson says the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 “can do nothing but good because, for the first time, we have congressional action which requires the U.S. government to take action based upon the level of persecution which may exist in certain countries.”
Greg Carpenter contributed to this article.