December 2016

New law to aid global religious liberty

December 20 2016 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

The United States government has new means to help protect Christians and other religious minorities around the world from persecution.
 
President Obama signed into law Dec. 16 the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The president’s enactment of the legislation came only three days after Congress completed its approval of the bill without any opposition in either the Senate or House of Representatives. See related report.
 
The new law – supported by a diverse coalition of non-government organizations – amends the original IRFA passed in 1998 by updating some of the measure’s provisions in an effort to make the federal government’s promotion of global religious freedom more effective.
 
Southern Baptists were among those who applauded enactment of the legislation.
 
“The bipartisan nature of this passage shows us that religious freedom does not have to be a partisan issue but is rooted in our deepest commitments as Americans, and I hope that persecuted religious minorities around the globe will see that they have not been forgotten,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in a written statement.
 
“While the passage of this act by no means solves the religious freedom crisis around the world, it is a step in the right direction,” Moore said.
 
Sen. James Lankford, R.-Okla., a member of a Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma City, expressed his appreciation for the president’s action.
 
“Religious freedom is more than an American right; it is a human right,” Lankford said in a written release. “As a world leader for freedom and the protection of basic human rights, the United States should take every opportunity to advocate for people to think, believe and act according to their religious belief, whether they belong to a minority or majority religion.”
 
The new version of IRFA includes the following provisions intended to strengthen the U.S. promotion of freedom for all religious adherents:

  • It requires the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to be able to report directly to the secretary of State;
  • It institutes an “entities of particular concern” category – a companion to the “countries of particular concern” classification used for nearly 20 years by the State Department – for non-government actors, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram.
  • It establishes a “designated persons list” for individuals who violate religious freedom and authorizes the president to issue sanctions against those who participate in persecution.

 
The new law – signed by Obama without comment with nearly 50 other bills the same day – also creates a list of overseas religious prisoners, mandates religious liberty training for all Foreign Service officers and calls for a minimum number of full-time staff members in the State Department’s international religious freedom office.
 
The original IRFA established a religious freedom office in the State Department to be headed by an ambassador-at-large. It also created an independent watchdog panel, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Wolf, the since-retired congressman from Virginia who long championed global religious liberty, sponsored IRFA 18 years ago.
 
In its annual report in May, USCIRF said global religious liberty continued to decline in the previous year. The commission cited the rampant imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, the startling increase in refugees and the ongoing bigotry toward Jews and Muslims in Europe as examples of attacks on religious adherents. This year, violent religious persecution has been reported in such countries as Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and Syria.
 
The State Department named its “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) in April, adding Tajikistan to a list that already consisted of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The CPC designation is reserved for governments that commit or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.“
 
USCIRF – a bipartisan, nine-member panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders – urged the State Department a month later to add the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam to the CPC list.
 
The Southern Baptist Convention has adopted numerous resolutions calling for religious freedom overseas, and the ERLC has backed IRFA throughout the legislation’s history.
 
The SBC approved its latest resolution on international religious freedom in 2015, saying it encourages U.S. government officials “to elevate religious liberty concerns to the highest priority in foreign policy, invoking sanctions against those nations which advocate or tolerate persecution of those with differing religious beliefs.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)


Related story:
New bill boosts global religious liberty

 

12/20/2016 10:37:24 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Compassion International faces eviction from India

December 20 2016 by Evan Wilt, WORLD News Service

Compassion International, a Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) that aids 145,000 impoverished Indian children, has only weeks left in the country unless officials give it a reprieve.
 
“We’ve simply run out of funds,” Stephen Oakley, the group’s senior vice president and general counsel, told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Dec 6.
 
Compassion employs 6,000 workers in India who provide aid to children living in extreme poverty. It has worked in India since 1968 and is the largest humanitarian presence in the second most populated country in the world – providing $50 million in annual relief funds. But India is cracking down on foreign NGOs based on fears that groups are using humanitarian work to mask evangelization efforts. Those fears have prompted the government to block the inflow of relief dollars.
 
So far, Indian officials have ignored pleas from U.S. lawmakers.
 
“We have spent nine months and hundreds of hours dealing with the Indian bureaucracy on this, and it looks like the bureaucracy is trying to run out the clock,” House Foreign Affairs chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said. “This is not a hearing that the committee expected to be holding.”
 
Oakley said Compassion has sought legal counsel to ensure it’s in good standing with the Indian government, but a complete breakdown in communication has exacerbated the situation.
 
India is the world’s largest democracy, with a population of 1.25 billion. But it also suffers from extreme poverty. More than 100 million children live without access to proper nutrition or other basic needs. The government does not have well-established anti-poverty programs and relies on foreign aid groups for humanitarian relief.
 
Oakley said Compassion is working with other NGOs to help take over relief work in the country should it have to shut down. But he expects more than 80 percent of the 145,000 children under Compassion’s care to fall through the cracks.
 
India screens foreign aid groups through its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). In 2011, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs revised the law, leaving it up to broad interpretation.
 
The revised FCRA now states the government can block funds “for any activities detrimental to the national interest.”
 
“One of the problems with the FCRA is that the Indian government has adopted a very wide interpretation of what is anti-national,” said Irfan Nooruddin, Georgetown University’s India Initiative director. “Anything that the government doesn’t agree with is now anti-national. There is no end in sight for them.”
 
India is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world. It is predominately Hindu, but also is home to more than 130 million Muslims and more than 50 million Christians. Nooruddin said this issue should be of great concern to the United States because it’s an attack on religious liberty.
 
Some lawmakers fear the consequences of berating the Indian government over its domestic policy.
 
“When I think about where we are in the U.S.-India relationship in a broad scope, it is really at a peak right now,” said Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., the only Indian-American member of Congress. “That’s one of my concerns with how this issue is resolved.”
 
Most of Compassion’s work deals with meeting physical needs, and only 4 percent of its resources extend to help children with moral and spiritual development. Oakley said the Indian government revoked the organization’s FCRA license because it identified several “black sheep” within Compassion who were sharing the gospel with local children. Government officials refuse to share that information with Compassion’s leaders.
 
Compassion isn’t alone in its situation with the Indian government. Nooruddin said 11,500 other NGOs, both secular and faith-based, have lost their FCRA licenses in the last several years.
 
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., called the situation an affront to religious freedom and said the United States should take it seriously.
 
“The threat on Compassion is indicative of what is happening to NGOs around the world,” he said. “The United States has the moral duty, our government, to put a tourniquet with the greatest extent possible on this deterioration [of religious freedom].”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Evan Wilt writes for WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine, worldmag.com, based in Asheville. Used with permission.)
 

12/20/2016 10:36:53 AM by Evan Wilt, WORLD News Service | with 0 comments



‘Silver and gold’ items highlight NOBTS dig

December 20 2016 by Gary D. Myers, NOBTS

Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God warned His people through Moses to avoid the idols of the Canaanites. Joshua reiterated this strict warning against the Canaanite gods after the people crossed the Jordan.

Photo by Dan Warner
The primary focus of the Tel Gezer Water System Excavation is the massive, ancient water system, which provided a water source inside the walls of Gezer. Researchers believe that Canaanites constructed the system during the Middle Bronze Age II (2000-1550 B.C.).


But the Israelites did not heed these warnings. The idols and false gods of the Canaanites proved to be a snare to the people from the time of the Conquest until the Exile.
 
This summer, the Tel Gezer Water System Excavation team from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) encountered the remnants of rampant Canaanite idolatry first-hand. The team uncovered a silver pendant devoted to Canaanite and Mesopotamian deities and part of a mold used to fashion clay goddess plaques. Both items appear to provide strong evidence of Canaanite fertility cult activity at Gezer.
 
The Gezer water system excavation is a joint project of the Moskau Institute for Archaeology at NOBTS and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) along with Liberty University School of Divinity, a dig consortium member. The excavation is directed by Dennis Cole, Jim Parker and Dan Warner of New Orleans Seminary, INPA chief archaeologist Tsvika Tsuk and Eli Yannai.
 
The primary focus of the excavation is the massive, ancient water system, which provided a water source inside the walls of Gezer. For the past seven years, a team of archaeologists and volunteers have been investigating the site in an effort to determine who constructed the ancient water system and when it was constructed.
 
The team also excavated in the Canaanite gate and a complex of rooms associated with the city wall in order to understand how the gate and wall interacted with the water system. The silver pendant was discovered, along with a cache of other items, in the complex of rooms associated with the wall. The cache of items had been wrapped in a linen cloth and placed in a clay “container” made of two bowls. The container was then hidden in the foundation of one of the rooms.
 
Warner believes that the cache represents a “foundation deposit” meant to bless the room.

Photo by IAA
Cleaning by the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed an embossed, eight-pointed star and a crescent shape on the cult pendant discovered at Gezer. Researchers believe the star represents the fertility goddess Ishtar and the crescent shape symbolizes the moon god, Sin.


“Finding a foundation deposit like this one in what appears to be a public storeroom is rare,” Warner said. “Surely it had a religious function; an offering to gods to make sure the structure would remain standing.“
 
The pendant includes a disk embossed with an eight-pointed star and prominent crescent shape. Irit Ziffer from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) believes the star disk represents the Canaanite fertility goddess Ishtar and the crescent symbolizes the Mesopotamian moon god Sin.
 
In the cache along with the pendant, the team found a stone scarab set in a gold frame which served as a fitting for a ring or a necklace. A scarab is a beetle-shaped Egyptian amulet engraved with a name or symbol and used to make impressions in clay – the ancient equivalent of a rubber stamp. Another scarab was found in the same complex of rooms, though the second one did not include a gold frame.
 
Daphna Ben-Tor, the curator of Egyptian Archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and expert on scarabs, analyzed both scarabs after the dig. Based on the design and engraving, Ben-Tor attributed the scarabs to the Hyksos period – a time when foreign leaders ruled Egypt.
 
“The Hyksos, who are believed to be Semitic and likely coming from the Levant, possibly the area of modern-day Turkey, would have been kinsman with the Canaanites, if not the Canaanites themselves,” Jim Parker said.
 
“This period is dated by scholars like Ben-Tor to the 15th to 17th Egyptian dynasties, dating 1650-1550 B.C.,” he noted.
 
“This demonstrates the cross-cultural interaction of the occupants of this part of the world and gives us background to the biblical narrative regarding the travels of Jacob and his sons to and from Egypt and the eyewitness account given in Numbers 13:27-29.”
 
One of the most important finds in the cache was the linen cloth.

Photo by IAA
Based on the design and engraving, researchers attribute the gold-framed scarab to the Hyksos period – a time when foreign leaders ruled Egypt.


 
According to organic material specialists Naama Sukenik and Orit Shamir from IAA, only two other samples of Middle Bronze Age II (MB II, 2000-1550 B.C.) linen have been found in Israel to date. The researchers were able to discern the type of raw material used as well as techniques the weaver used to splice the fibers into longer threads.
 
During previous dig seasons the team discovered multiple broken clay goddess plaques in the water system. This year, the team discovered part of a mold used to make these figures. The clay goddess mold, likely representing the Canaanite goddess Astarte or the Egyptian goddess Hathor, was discovered deep in the water system.
 
The cache of objects and the mold represent the most important finds to date for the water system excavation team. Team leaders believe the objects will help establish a MB II construction date for the water system.
 

Gezer water system: a brief history

In the Middle Bronze Age, Gezer grew from a small village into a heavily fortified city-state. The Canaanites built high stone walls, massive towers and a mud-brick gate system to protect the city. Later, King Solomon fortified Gezer along with Hazor, Jerusalem and Megiddo (1 Kings 9:15-17).
 
The connection between Gezer, Hazor and Megiddo led many archaeologists to argue that the Gezer water system (along with the Hazor and Megiddo systems) was constructed after Solomon, during the reign of Ahab.
 
When Irish archaeologist R.A.S. Macalister excavated the system from 1906 to 1908, he attributed it to Middle Bronze Age Canaanites. However, his primitive archaeology methods along with persistent theories about the systems in Hazor and Megiddo led many to dismiss his claims about the Gezer system.
 
Shortly after Macalister’s excavation at Gezer, a retaining wall collapsed and refilled the water system with dirt rocks and debris. It remained untouched for 102 years. Since 2010, the NOBTS/INPA team has removed tons of debris to reach the area where Macalister stopped his excavation. For the past few seasons, the team has been removing datable pottery samples from these untouched areas.
 
Pottery evidence found there suggests a construction date between 2000 B.C. and 1550 B.C. Warner noted the Canaanites likely built the water system during the height of Gezer’s prominence as a Canaanite city-state. Recent evidence suggests that the Megiddo system may be a product of the same time period.

Photo by Sarah Simon
The Tel Gezer Water System Excavation team is studying three locations in order to determine a construction date for the water system. The water system opening is the large depression in the middle-left of the photograph. The team is also excavating in a complex of rooms related to the wall (just left of the wooden bridge in the photo) and in the Canaanite gate (left of the wall rooms).

 

A biblical parallel to the Gezer system

While a MB II date would place construction between 500-800 years before the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the water system can shed light on the Canaanite people and their culture – a culture which plays such a formidable role in the Old Testament.
 
The Canaanites experienced a time of cultural decline in the years before the conquest but they were still a formidable foe with heavily fortified cities. The water system, along with the massive defensive walls and gate, illustrate an advanced society with great technical know-how, significant engineering skills and a desire to build things on a large scale, Warner said.
 
The Bible provides one tantalizing parallel which provides additional dating clues. In 2 Samuel 5:6-9, David’s men utilized a “water shaft” to invade and conquer the fortress of Zion/Jerusalem. The rock-hewn system has been located in the “City of David” area in Jerusalem. Visitors can walk the entire length of that Canaanite system.
 
Next year’s dig at Gezer will run from May 20 to June 9 and is open to volunteers. For information about Gezer or for details regarding participation in the 2017 dig, contact Jim Parker (jparker@nobts.edu) or Dennis Cole (rdcole@nobts.edu) at NOBTS. Those interested in the master of arts degree program in biblical archaeology may contact Warner or Cole for more information.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)
 

12/20/2016 10:36:30 AM by Gary D. Myers, NOBTS | with 0 comments



MBC calls on court for restoration

December 20 2016 by Missouri Pathway staff

The Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) has asked the Circuit Court of Cole County to restore The Baptist Home and Missouri Baptist University to the MBC family.


The Baptist Home, a three-campus senior adult residential ministry, broke away from the convention in September 2000, declaring its board of trustees to be independent and self-perpetuating. In August 2001, Missouri Baptist University (MBU), a four-year college in Clayton, Mo., took the same action, amending its charter to remove all ties to the MBC.
 
Their moves away from the MBC were similar to steps the Missouri Baptist Foundation took in September 2001, resulting in legal efforts by the MBC to restore the institutions. Those actions began in August 2002 and continued until September of 2016, when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the Foundation must return governance to trustees elected by Missouri Baptists at their annual meeting.
 
The cases involving the Baptist Home and MBU were stayed by the trial court until the Foundation case was finally resolved in the Missouri Supreme Court, so that common questions of law could be decided. That’s because the Baptist Home and MBU each have consent clauses in their charters that are nearly identical to the clause in the Foundation charter that prohibited the entity from making changes in its charter without the approval of the convention.
 
MBC General Counsel Michael Whitehead believes the Foundation decision provides a legal precedent for the cases involving the other breakaway entities. In filing a separate motion as to each entity on Dec. 2, the MBC asked the Circuit Court of Cole County to grant a summary judgment to the MBC, effectively restoring governance of each entity to MBC-elected trustees.
 
“We are grateful to the Lord for restoring the Foundation to our stewardship,” said John Yeats, executive director of the MBC. “We also are thankful to Missouri Baptists, who showed remarkable patience and resilience over the last 15 years as we sought the Foundation’s return. We now pray that the Circuit Court of Cole County returns the Baptist Home and MBU to the MBC family.”
 
Circuit Court Frank Conley, who also decided the Foundation case, is expected to rule on the MBC’s motion after allowing defense lawyers to file written responses. A ruling could come by early next year.
 
Regarding Windermere Conference Center, which also broke away from the MBC, Whitehead notes that the consent clause – which is key to the cases of the Foundation, Baptist Home, and MBC – was deliberately omitted from the Windermere charter when it was filed in 2000, resulting in a court decision that MBC could not recover the Windermere corporation or the land.
 
In 2014, MBC was able to re-purchase 970 acres of land which had been lost by Windermere to a creditor. Windermere is no longer involved in the legal proceedings related to the senior adult home and the university.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Reported by the staff of The Pathway, mbcpathway.com, newsjournal for the Missouri Baptist Convention.)
 

12/20/2016 10:03:29 AM by Missouri Pathway staff | with 0 comments



U.S. citizen pastoring in Turkey jailed for faith

December 19 2016 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

Religious liberty advocates have joined the U.S. government in seeking the release of an American citizen who pastored a Protestant church in Turkey for 20 years before being imprisoned for his faith.
Andrew Brunson, formerly of Black Mountain, N.C., was reportedly detained 63 days without charges at the Harmandali Detention Center in Izmir, Turkey, before being imprisoned Dec. 9 at nearby Sakran Prison. He’s being held on false charges of being a member of an armed terrorist organization, World Watch Monitor reported.

Facebook photo
Pastor Andrew Brunson, shown with his wife Norine, is imprisoned in Turkey on false charges because of his Christian faith.


The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and the International Christian Concern (ICC) are campaigning for the release of Brunson. ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said Brunson is in “grave danger.”
 
“The government of Turkey – led by an Islamic party – has begun increased crackdowns on Christians, and Pastor Andrew, if convicted, may face years in prison based on extremely serious – and false – charges,” Sekulow said in a press release. “We are launching a global campaign to call attention to his plight demanding that Turkey – a NATO member – release Pastor Andrew without delay.”
 
Brunson’s wife Norine had also been detained, but was released Oct. 19 after the couple had reportedly been held in isolation two weeks and denied communication with U.S. consular officials in Turkey. The couple has three adult children studying in the U.S., including 18-year-old daughter Jacqueline Brunson, a college student in North Carolina.
 
The Brunsons’ daughter wrote in a press release, “It is both troubling and disturbing that my father, who has called Turkey home for the last 23 years, is imprisoned without cause.”
 
“I grew up in Turkey and saw firsthand how much he loves Turkey and the Turkish people” she noted. “He has exhibited nothing but love, mercy and grace during his time there.
 
“Our family is shocked by this latest development and we urge the government to release him immediately,” she said. “The best Christmas present our family could receive this year is the release of my father.”
 
Brunson had pastored the Izmir Resurrection Church of about 40 worshippers in Izmir, said the ICC, which estimated there are 100,000 Christians in Turkey, a country of 80 million people. Brunson is accused of having links with the Fetullah Gulen movement, accused by the Turkish government of instigating a failed military coup against Turkey President Recep Erdogan.
 
ICC Advocacy Director Isaac Six said Brunson’s arrest is part of a growing pattern of Christian persecution in Turkey that is exacerbated by attempts to overthrow Erodogan.
 
“With this move, Turkish officials are not only brazenly targeting an innocent American citizen and a Christian who has dedicated the last two decades to serving the Turkish people, they are sending a message to the rest of the world that religious freedom in Turkey is dead,” Six said in an ICC press release. “We call on officials in Ankara to release Andrew immediately and to ensure that all religious minorities in Turkey are protected from undue prosecution or persecution by anyone, including the Turkish government, on the basis of their faith.”
 
In Facebook updates, Norine is asking Christians to mail brief, encouraging letters to the pastor, but to translate them to Turkish to increase the probability that Turkish officials actually forward the notes to the pastor.
 
“To maximize the chances of notes reaching him, best to just write ’senin icin dua ediyoruz’ (we are praying for you),” the pastor’s wife posted Dec. 13. “That will let him know that he is being remembered to the Lord and be encouragement enough.
 
“I’d love to flood him with notes so he sees the sheer number of people praying for him,” Norine said. “If people want to write a verse out in Turkish (looking it up on the internet), it will serve the extra purpose of being a witness to those reading! Do keep it short, though.”
 
An ACLJ petition for Brunson’s release has garnered more than 56,000 signatures at aclj.org/persecuted-church/american-pastor-andrew-brunson-wrongfully-imprisoned-in-turkey.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)
 

12/19/2016 8:22:53 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Rule protects Planned Parenthood in Obama’s last days

December 19 2016 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

Pro-life advocates hope the Obama administration’s latest beneficial act for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers will have a brief existence.


Barely five weeks before President Obama leaves office, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued Dec. 14 a final rule that would effectively block states from prohibiting Title X funds for abortion providers. The federal government provides funds for family planning and preventive health services to states through the Title X program.
 
The HHS action appears to benefit the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) most. In recent years, at least 12 states have cut money for Planned Parenthood, some in the wake of different scandals uncovered regarding the country’s No. 1 abortion provider. Courts have blocked those actions in some cases, thereby enabling the organization to continue to receive government funds.
 
The HHS rule, however, faces the challenge of surviving after President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated Jan. 20. During the election campaign, Trump promised pro-life leaders he would defund Planned Parenthood. Pro-life leaders are optimistic that pledge means the new rule – which will take effect Jan. 18 – would not long survive the new administration.
 
Southern Baptist ethics leader Russell Moore is praying to that end.
 
“My prayer is that this rule is reversed quickly, and that Planned Parenthood will finally be held accountable by both left and right, not protected by political allies at taxpayers’ expense,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments for Baptist Press.
 
The Susan B. Anthony List believes “this last gift of President Obama to the abortion lobby will be short-lived,” said Mallory Quigley, communications director for the organization.
 
A congressional pro-life leader – Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. – said the Obama administration “will not have the last word.”
 
“We should not be surprised that his administration would lash out with this eleventh hour power grab on the way out the door, but I am certain this rule will not stand for long,” she said in a written statement. “Come next year, our pro-life majorities in Congress will be positioned to work with [Trump and Rep. Tom Price, a pro-lifer and nominee for HHS secretary] to not only roll back this latest overreach but also to enact new legal protections for these most vulnerable members of our society.”
 
ERLC’s Moore told Baptist Press (BP), “Planned Parenthood exploits women, families, and communities in a profit-driven industry of death. That this organization receives any taxpayer support is a moral and political scandal, and those states that acted to defund it should be lauded, not bullied.”
 
Planned Parenthood affiliates performed 323,999 abortions during 2013-14, the most recent year for which statistics are available. PPFA and its affiliates received $553.7 million in government grants and reimbursements, according to its latest annual financial report (2014-15).
 
In addition to action the Trump administration could take, Congress also could act to restrict federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
 
House of Representatives Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and 21 committee chairmen wrote the heads of the executive branch departments in mid-November to caution them about finalizing regulations in the Obama administration’s final days. The Republican leaders warned they would work to review and possibly rescind such rules under the Congressional Review Act if the executive branch heads ignored the caution.
 
Congress also could largely defund Planned Parenthood through a reconciliation bill, which enables the Senate to approve a budget-related measure with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster. Under the reconciliation process, Congress could eliminate about 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.
 
Both the Senate and House passed such a reconciliation proposal nearly a year ago, but Obama vetoed the bill in January.
 
The House and Senate “could put a bill defunding abortion businesses on President Trump’s desk early in the new year,” Quigley told Baptist Press in written comments.
 
“Americans simply do not want their hard-earned taxpayer dollars going to a profit-driven, abortion-centered business that claims the lives of more than [323,000] children a year,” she said. “What’s more, women need more than what Planned Parenthood can provide and will be better served at the community and rural health clinics” that vastly outnumber Planned Parenthood clinics.
 
PPFA President Cecile Richards applauded the HHS rule, saying Obama “has cemented his legacy as a champion for women’s health.”
 
“We will not back down, and we will continue to fight for our patients’ access to care,” she said in a written release. “Every person deserves the right to control their own bodies, their own health, and their own well-being without politicians getting in the way.”
 
The latest of Planned Parenthood’s scandals involves the online release last year of secretly recorded videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the alleged sale of organs from aborted children.
 
The new HHS rule does not explicitly block states from providing Title X funds to abortion providers. Instead, it bars states from basing the selection of a Title X recipient organization on anything other than “its ability to provide Title X services.” As a result, states would be unable to block funds from going to organizations simply because they provide abortions.
 
According to federal law, Title X funds cannot be used for the performance of abortions, but pro-life advocates point out that grants to Planned Parenthood and other providers free up other funds for use in performing abortions.
 
HHS proposed the rule in September and provided a comment period. About 91 percent of the more than 145,000 comments favored the proposed rule, according to HHS. The vast majority of comments on both sides were duplicates, the department reported.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
 

12/19/2016 8:22:01 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Letter calls Pruitt ‘well qualified’ for EPA

December 19 2016 by Baptist Press staff

A group of 48 evangelical leaders, the vast majority of them Southern Baptists, has sent a letter to President-elect Donald Trump in support of Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
 

Among the signatories are 12 former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidents; current SBC President Steve Gaines; 14 current and former SBC entity heads, including all six current SBC seminary presidents; and 17 state Baptist convention executive directors.
 
Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, is a deacon at First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Okla., and a trustee at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His selection by Trump was announced Dec. 7.
 
The letter was released Dec. 16 amid opposition to Pruitt’s nomination by some environmentalists and theologically liberal clergy who have criticized Pruitt for allegedly denying the science of climate change.
 
The letter calls Pruitt “well qualified to lead the Environmental Protection Agency” and deserving of “the full support of the United States Senate in his confirmation.”
 
“We do not deny the existence of climate change nor the urgency of this concern,” the letter states. “We affirm an ongoing debate on the proper balance between the unleashing of human enterprise and the protection of creation. ... We believe that Attorney General Pruitt has been misrepresented as denying ‘settled science,’ when he has actually called for a continuing debate.”
 
The full letter and list of signatories is available below.
 
December 16, 2016
 
Dear President-Elect Trump:
 
We write in support of your nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. We are evangelical Christians who are committed to a proper stewardship of all creation, driven by our knowledge that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” [Psalm 24:1]
 
We believe that every human being is called to this stewardship, and we believe that our Christian responsibility is to bear witness to the truth that God created the cosmos for His own glory and that He created human beings in His own image, bearing responsibility to advance human flourishing through many forms of human activity, from agriculture and enterprise to technology and innovation.
 
Every realm of human activity comes with the responsibility to be good stewards of all that is entrusted to us – and so much has been entrusted. We are thankful for the progress made in respecting creation, advancing a proper environmentalism, and affirming this stewardship. We pray for every nation to enjoy clean air, clean water, and all things that lead to the flourishing of creation.
 
At the same time, we reject any ideology that sees human beings as a blight upon the planet and would harm human flourishing by restricting or preventing the rightful use and enjoyment of creation.
 
A very great stewardship is invested in the Environmental Protection Agency, and thus in its Administrator. We support the nomination of Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
 
We do not deny the existence of climate change nor the urgency of this concern. We affirm an ongoing debate on the proper balance between the unleashing of human enterprise and the protection of creation. We call for justice, righteousness, and compassion in every dimension of our national life, including our government. We believe that Attorney General Pruitt has been misrepresented as denying “settled science,” when he has actually called for a continuing debate. This is in the very best tradition of science.
 
We believe that the Hon. Scott Pruitt is well qualified to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and that he deserves the full support of the United States Senate in his confirmation. May God bless you as our new President, even as the day of your inauguration fast approaches. We pledge to pray faithfully for you and your Administration, and our cherished nation.
 
Sincerely,
 
Danny Akin, President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
 
Jason K. Allen, President, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
 
Brian Autry, Executive Director, Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia
 
Denny Burk, President, Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
 
Morris Chapman, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Former President & CEO, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Paul Chitwood, Executive Director-Treasurer, Kentucky Baptist Convention
 
Randy Davis, Executive Director, Tennessee Baptist Convention
 
Jimmy Draper, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Tom Elliff, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Leo Endel, Executive Director, Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention
 
Ronnie Floyd, Senior Pastor, Cross Church, Northwest Arkansas, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Jim Futral, Executive Director-Treasurer, Mississippi Baptist Convention
 
Steve Gaines, President, Southern Baptist Convention, Pastor, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN
 
Jack Graham, Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, TX, Former President of the Southern
 
Baptist Convention
 
Tommy Green, Executive Director-Treasurer, Florida Baptist Convention
 
David Hankins, Executive Director, Louisiana Baptist Convention
 
O.S. Hawkins, President & CEO, Guidestone Financial Resources
 
William D. Henard, Executive Director-Treasurer, West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists
 
Jim Henry, Senior Pastor, Downtown Baptist Church, Orlando, FL, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Milton Hollifield, Executive Director-Treasurer, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
 
Gary Hollingsworth, Executive Director-Treasurer, South Carolina Baptist Convention
 
Johnny Hunt, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church Woodstock, GA, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Jeff Iorg, President, Gateway Baptist Theological Seminary
 
Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO, National Religious Broadcasters
 
Anthony Jordan, Executive Director-Treasurer, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma
 
Chuck Kelley, President, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
 
Jack Kwok, Executive Director-Treasurer, The State Convention of Baptists in Ohio
 
Rick Lance, Executive Director, Alabama Baptist Convention
 
Richard Land, President, Southern Theological Seminary
 
Greg Laurie, Senior Pastor, Harvest Christian Fellowship, Riverside, CA
 
Joe Ligon, President, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Marlow, OK
 
James MacDonald, Founder and Senior Pastor, Harvest Bible Chapel, Chicago, IL
 
James Merritt, Lead Pastor, Cross Pointe Church, Duluth, GA, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
 
Russell Moore, President, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, President, Union University
 
Frank Page, President & CEO, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Paige Patterson, President, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Thom Rainer, President & CEO, LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
Jim Richards, Executive Director, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
 
J.D. “Sonny” Tucker, Executive Director, Arkansas Baptist State Convention
 
Jerry Vines, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
J. Robert White, Executive Director/CEO, Georgia Baptist Convention
 
Thomas White, President, Cedarville University
 
David Whitlock, President, Oklahoma Baptist University
 
Bryant Wright, Senior Pastor, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, Marietta, GA, Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention
 
John Yeats, Executive Director, Missouri Baptist Convention
 
Michael Youssef, Founder and President of Leading The Way, Founding Rector, Church of the Apostles, Atlanta, GA
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Colby Adams, director of media relations and digital communications at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)
 
12/19/2016 8:21:42 AM by Baptist Press staff | with 0 comments



War on Christmas leaves ‘no one ... happy’

December 19 2016 by David Roach, Baptist Press

A poster of a Peanuts character with a Bible verse, a cross on a town Christmas tree and even the word “holiday” are among the latest battlegrounds in the so-called war against Christmas.
 
Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines told Baptist Press this year’s flurry of attacks on public expressions of Christmas highlight the need to safeguard religious liberty.
 
“Christians are not the only people in America,” said Gaines, pastor of Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn. “But we should have the same rights as everyone else,” including the right to “emphasize Christ” in “the public arena.”
 
Christmas, Gaines noted, “is about Jesus Christ. And I can’t even imagine the pushback many people would have if people tried to come against Islamic holy days like Ramadan or Jewish holy days.”
 

Linus’ verse banned

In central Texas, a middle school principal ordered a nurse’s aide to remove the text of Luke 2:11 from a handmade poster of the blanket-toting Peanuts character Linus. The verse is part of a passage Linus famously recites in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
 
The Killeen (Texas) Independent School District voted to support the principal’s action Dec. 13, according to KWTX television in Waco, Texas.
 
District officials said in a statement earlier in December that “employees are free to celebrate the Christmas and holiday season in the manner of their choosing. However, employees are not permitted to impose their personal beliefs on students.”
 
The conservative legal organization Texas Values filed a lawsuit Dec. 15 on behalf of the nurse’s aide, Dedra Shannon of Charles Patterson Middle School. That same day, a Bell County state district judge issued a temporary injunction granting Shannon permission to display the poster as long as it included the words “Ms. Shannon’s Christmas Message” in letters as large as those of the Bible verse.
 
Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values and legal counsel for Shannon, said in a statement, “Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ like a court victory for religious freedom in December. Ms. Shannon is a brave and faithful woman that we are honored to represent.”
 
Texas attorney general Ken Paxton intervened in the case Dec. 15, filing a motion seeking the temporary injunction. He also sent a letter to the school district Dec. 13, arguing that fears the poster violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause “stem from an incorrect reading of the law.”
 

ACLU targets cross

Knightstown, Ind., town officials removed a cross from atop a Christmas tree in the town square – where it has been displayed the past four years – after the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit seeking to have it removed, USA Today reported Dec. 13. The town anticipated losing what could have been a “costly lawsuit,” according to USA Today.
 
The town council said in a Facebook post it removed the cross “with great regret and sadness” and expected to approve a resolution Dec. 15 pledging to “not return the cross to the tree.”
 
However, after what Fox 59 television of Indianapolis described as “a lengthy and emotional meeting,” the council tabled its proposal to ban religious symbols on public property.
 
A representative of the Christian Legal Association told Fox 59 the town and the ACLU would work together to negotiate a display that includes the cross.
 
The ACLU’s legal complaint states, “The cross is the best known symbol of Christianity and Knightstown’s prominent display of this symbol represents an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
 

‘Happy holidays’ offends

At Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, a university news release offering tips for seasonal office parties noted a professor’s recommendation to avoid using the word “holiday” as a secular alternative to “Christmas” because it still “connotes religious tradition and may not apply to all employees.”
 
According to the higher education watchdog group Campus Reform, the news release also included a suggestion to avoid “any religious symbolism” at parties “such as images of Santa Claus, evergreen trees, or red-nosed reindeer.” Snowflakes and snowmen were billed as acceptable party decorations.
 
The news release was reported by multiple media outlets but as of Dec. 16 it no longer appears on TWU’s website.
 
TWU posted a statement Dec. 15 noting “media coverage concerns” about the original release and stating, “One story in [a] ‘holiday tips’ package included suggestions from a Texas Woman’s University faculty member on possible alternatives to a traditional office holiday party. The story noted that employers may face challenges when planning a party that appropriately recognizes all faiths and backgrounds, and the article provided ideas on how employers can host gatherings that make all employees feel included.
 
“We apologize for any concerns that this article may have caused our alumni and others,” the statement continued. “And we would like to assure everyone that Texas Woman’s University believes all people should be able to enjoy and celebrate Christmas and all other religious traditions.”
 

Choirs barred from ‘nativity celebration’

In North Carolina, choirs from Wake County public schools have been barred by district officials from continuing an annual tradition of performances at the Apex Christmas Nativity Celebration hosted by a local Mormon group.
 
The event features hundreds of nativity scenes from around the world and is attended by community members, according to Raleigh’s News & Observer. Public school choirs have been performing at the event for at least 13 years, Fox News reported.
 
But district officials decided choir participation posed a legal risk after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation flagged a YouTube video of a Mormon official calling the event “a wonderful opportunity for you to bear testimony of Christ to your friends,” the News & Observer reported.
 
Wake County schools spokesman Tim Simmons told the News & Observer, “No one was particularly happy with the outcome of this. Some schools had been participating for several years.”
 
Gaines noted that followers of Jesus, like all Americans, “shouldn’t just have freedom of worship. We should have freedom of religion.”
 
“That means we can practice in the open marketplace in a very polite way. We don’t want to be arrogant, and we don’t want to be abrasive. But at the same time, we need to be able to honestly declare our faith in the open market just like anyone else,” Gaines said.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)
 

12/19/2016 8:20:18 AM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 1 comments



Gateway’s new Bay Area campus to open in January

December 19 2016 by Katherine Chute, Gateway

A final piece in Gateway Seminary’s campus relocation efforts drops into place as the seminary’s new San Francisco-area campus opens in Fremont, Calif., on Jan. 10. Spring classes begin there Jan. 30.


The campus will serve 250-300 students as the seminary continues its ministry in the Bay Area that began with its location to Mill Valley in 1959. Fall 2016 classes for the campus opened in Mill Valley as construction continued in Fremont. The seminary also dedicated its new main campus in Ontario, Calif., in October. See related story.
 
“We’re very excited to open this brand new theological training center that will help start, finish or advance a student’s ministry education,” said Rick Durst, director of the San Francisco-area campus. “We will host open enrollment until Jan. 30, with admission fees waived for those in the Bay area. It’s a perfect opportunity to be included in the first entering class at this new facility.”
 
The San Francisco campus features a complete library, classrooms, offices and full-time faculty and staff. Available academic programs include the master of divinity, master of theological studies, master of arts in educational leadership and diplomas in educational leadership and theology. The campus will be officially dedicated April 22.
 
Durst said that the best part of the San Francisco campus is they will be in the center of what God is doing in the Bay Area.
 
“In Mill Valley, we were isolated on one highway,” he said. “Ten highways are close to our new location. There are also multiple growing mega churches nearby, as well as firms like Facebook and Google and Tesla, which has 4 million feet of building under construction for automobile production.”
 
He said the area will be a whole different environment for mission – even the campus’ address on Mission Boulevard.
 
“Although [San Francisco] is multicultural, Marin County really is not,” he said. “In comparison, [Fremont] has a very diverse population. The largest group of Afghanis outside of Kabul live in Fremont. It’s also close to Levi’s Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers play.”
 
The land on which the campus is located was donated by Mission Way Baptist Church. Valued at $2.9 million, it is the largest single gift ever contributed to the seminary.
 
“Their generosity and their vision for Southern Baptist ministry led them to give us the property at the right time and at the right opportunity” Durst said. “The circumstances were something only God could orchestrate.
 
For more information about Gateway’s San Francisco campus programs or enrolling for classes, contact sfc-info@gs.edu or call 415-380-1890.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Katherine Chute is director of communications for Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
 
Related story:
Gateway Seminary dedicates building, celebrates blessings
 

12/19/2016 8:19:44 AM by Katherine Chute, Gateway | with 0 comments



New bill boosts global religious liberty

December 16 2016 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

Congress has approved legislation promoted by religious freedom advocates that should strengthen the United States' effort to combat persecution of Christians and other faith minorities.
 
The House of Representatives approved the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), H.R. 1150, Dec. 13 to complete congressional action on the proposal. That action came only three days after the Senate amended and passed an earlier House-approved version. Both the House and Senate endorsed the amended bill without opposition.
 
Bill supporters are optimistic President Obama will sign the measure into law.
 
H.R. 1150 serves as an update of the 1998 bill that established a religious freedom office in the State Department and an independent watchdog panel, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Wolf, the since-retired congressman from Virginia who championed global religious liberty, sponsored the original IRFA 18 years ago.
 
The new legislation is designed to improve the federal government's effectiveness in promoting religious liberty by, among other measures:

  • Requiring the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to report directly to the secretary of State;
  • Establishing an “entities of particular concern” category – a companion to the “countries of particular concern” classification used for nearly 20 years by the State Department – for non-government actors, such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram.
  • Instituting a “designated persons list” for individuals who violate religious freedom and authorizing the president to issue sanctions against those who participate in persecution.

 
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the legislation “a vital step toward protecting conscience freedom for millions of the world's most vulnerable, most oppressed people.”
 
“Millions, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters, have experienced the most brutal forms of persecution, and entire cultures are now on the brink of extinction,” Moore said, in written comments for Baptist Press. “This is an urgent human rights crisis, and global religious liberty is too important to become a partisan wedge issue.
 
“I pray that President Obama signs this important legislation and empowers the United States to continue her defense of the first freedom all around the world,” he said.
 
Paul Coleman, deputy director of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, said the bill “demonstrates that the U.S. is serious about the importance of religious freedom both for those who are suffering and for all those who love freedom in general.”
 
“Those who are suffering around the world simply for holding to a certain faith shouldn't be forgotten, and those responsible for that persecution should be made to face appropriate consequences for their acts,” Coleman said in a written statement.
 
Final passage of IRFA came in a week when IS claimed responsibility for a bombing at a Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, that killed 24 people – even while violent religious persecution continued in such countries as Iraq, Nigeria and Syria. In Iraq, the Christian community has decreased by 80 percent in the last decade from 1.5 million to 300,000, the Wilberforce Initiative reported Dec. 14.
 
Approval also came in a year when USCIRF reported that global religious liberty continued to decline. The commission cited the rampant imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, the startling increase in refugees and the ongoing bigotry toward Jews and Muslims in Europe as examples of attacks on religious adherents.
 
The State Department named its “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) in April, adding Tajikistan to a list that already consisted of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The CPC designation is reserved for governments that commit or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
 
In May, USCIRF – a bipartisan, nine-member panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders – urged the State Department to add the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam to the CPC list.
 
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., sponsor of the bill, said after its passage, “From China and Vietnam to Syria and Nigeria, we are witnessing a tragic, global crisis in religious persecution, violence and terrorism, with dire consequences for religious believers and for U.S. national security.
 
“Ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria are on the verge of extinction and other religious minorities in the Middle East face a constant assault from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
 
Christians “are the most persecuted group on the planet,” said Alexandra Tompson, legal analyst at ADF International, after a Dec. 14 discussion at Vienna, Austria, sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Even in Europe, they often face intolerance and discrimination.”
 
The new IRFA also:

  • Creates a list of overseas religious prisoners;
  • Mandates religious liberty training for all foreign service officers;
  • Establishes a minimum number of full-time staff members in the State Department's international religious freedom office.

 
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the legislation “will help ensure that defending religious freedom remains at the core of our engagement in even the most repressive parts of the world and that we have the most effective policies in place to be successful.”
 
The Southern Baptist Convention approved its latest resolution on international religious freedom in 2015, saying it encourages U.S. government officials “to elevate religious liberty concerns to the highest priority in foreign policy, invoking sanctions against those nations which advocate or tolerate persecution of those with differing religious beliefs.”
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.)
 

12/16/2016 10:25:20 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



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