NASHVILLE (BP) — Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs and the only Christian serving in that government, was posthumously awarded the 2011 John Leland Religious Liberty Award by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission during the Sept. 12-13 meeting of ERLC’s trustees.
Bhatti, who was assassinated March 2 of this year, was a “man of incredible bravery” who fought for religious liberty in Pakistan at “great personal risk,” ERLC President Richard Land said.
According to press reports, in a videotape unsealed after his death, Bhatti said: “When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia law, for the abolishment of [the] blasphemy law and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me, but I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given His own life for us.”
According to The Guardian newspaper, the men who attacked Bhatti’s car as he drove to his office left behind pamphlets scattered on the street that called Bhatti an “infidel Christian,” pillorying him for his vocal criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws aimed at silencing all but Muslims.
Land said he hopes the award will honor Bhatti’s memory and help “perpetuate what he stood for.” He commended the late Christian Pakistani for his vision for soul freedom.
Land told the trustees that incidents of religious persecution are growing globally and Christians are increasingly being victimized.
“The bad news is that there are more Christians being martyred; the good news is that there are Christians in areas of the world where there didn’t used to be Christians,” Land said, noting the growth in the number of believers in places in the world where persecution is more common.
On a broader front, the world is seeing a “reverse domino effect” as citizens of nations in the Middle East and North Africa react to the seeds of democracy that are sprouting in Iraq, said Land, a member of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom since 2001.
“For all of its problems, Iraq is the most democratic government and most representative government ever elected in the Arab world. Ever,” Land said.
“It is in our country’s best interest to do everything we can to help democracy grow in other countries in the region,” he continued.
Land also applauded the founding of a new nation, South Sudan, out of the violence and destruction sown in that area by what he called a “gangster regime in Khartoum,” Sudan’s capital.
South Sudan became an independent state on July 9 of this year after a tenuous peace was secured in an ongoing civil war.
“This is as primitive a country as any in the world,” Land said. “They have been bombed, slaughtered and mutilated for 15 years and it shows.”
Much of the fighting was over oil, which is in the south, Land said, noting the new nation will require the “world’s attention and assistance” to ensure the militants in Sudan don’t seek to retake the area.
Land said he is less than pleased with the state of affairs in Pakistan, where religious liberty is nonexistent. In its most recent report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that “Pakistan continued to be responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.”
Religious liberty was the most frequently addressed topic in stories and interviews featuring the SBC entity, according to an ERLC analysis of media activity.
Trustees learned that Land and other ERLC staff conducted 192 media interviews in the past year, resulting in 3,417 news stories. The greatest percentage of “media hits” were online and in social media.
DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD
Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, received the 2011 Richard D. Land Distinguished Service Award during the meeting.
Luter was elected first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the SBC annual meeting in June. He earlier served as the convention’s second vice president.
Luter performed the daunting task as a shepherd seeking his flock after Hurricane Katrina drove many of his church members to communities across the country, Land said.
In August 2005, Luter’s home and church were damaged by the floodwaters following the hurricane’s direct hit on New Orleans. Since then, the Franklin Avenue congregation has grown to 7,000-plus members.
Luter, who was born in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood hit particularly hard by the 2005 breach of the city’s levees, is one of only a few people who is successfully able to reach native New Orleans residents with the Gospel, Land said.
“Fred Luter richly deserves this award,” Land said, noting his work in spreading the Gospel and meeting needs.
Land told the trustees that evangelicals have more influence in Washington, D.C., than they have had in the 23 years since he became ERLC president, but many evangelicals are still not registered to vote. “That’s a disgrace,” Land added.
Land promised the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission would be part of the “largest and most sustained effort yet in seeking to get Southern Baptists registered to vote, informed and encouraged to vote their values, beliefs and convictions.”
The outcome of the 2012 election, like all elections, has consequences for the nation, Land said. “We are at risk of being the first generation in American history to have passed on to our children a lower standard of living than the one we had,” Land lamented.
At the core of the 2012 election, he said, is the question: “Are we going to fundamentally alter the role the government plays in our daily lives, or not?”
In other business, trustees:
— elected Stephen Faith of New Albany, Ind., a retired associational missionary, as board chairman; Richard Piles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Camden, Ark., as vice chairman; and Donald Mason, a member of First Baptist Church in Locust Grove, Ga., as secretary.
— responded to motions referred from the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, including a call to study the “impact of unbiblical sexuality.” In their response, trustees acknowledged the “great extent to which unbridled sexual deviancy has soiled society and ravaged families,” encouraging Southern Baptists to “establish clear, God-honoring guidelines in this area.”
— tapped David Allen, dean of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology, and David Jones, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.
— approved a $3.108 million budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, down 3.96 percent from the previous year. Staff salaries remain at their current levels in the budget. The ERLC receives 1.65 percent of Cooperative Program funds received nationally.
Dwayne Hastings is a vice president with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.