February 2012

Report: Iran may be set to execute pastor

February 22 2012 by Baptist Press

TEHRAN – Iranian officials may have issued an order to execute a pastor at the center of a high-profile case that has drawn international attention, according to a legal group that has followed the case.

The statement asked for Christians worldwide to pray.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) Feb. 21 quoted its sources as saying pastor Yousef (also spelled Youcef) Nadarkhani could be executed at any time. Nadarkhani was convicted and sentenced to death for converting from Islam to Christianity.

“Pastor Youcef’s situation – an innocent man convicted and sentenced to death for becoming a Christian – has not been this dire since we first brought his case to your attention last year,” the ACLJ said on its website. “It is unclear whether Pastor Youcef would have a right of appeal from the execution order.”

The ACLJ statement said simply, “We are hearing reports from our contacts in Iran that the execution orders for Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani may have been issued.”

A second group that monitors religious liberty, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), released a statement saying the situation is dire. Nadarkhani's lawyer, CSW reported, “is trying to confirm reports that the Iranian authorities have decided to execute the pastor.”

“There are grave concerns that the death sentence could be carried out at any time without prior notification and that the authorities will merely announce it later, a practice that is not uncommon in Iran,” CSW said.

Said ACLJ, “There has also been a disturbing increase in the number of executions conducted by the Iranian regime in the last month.”

Western leaders have spoken out for Nadarkhani. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement in December calling for Nadarkhani and several other prisoners of conscience worldwide to be released “immediately and unconditionally.”

The case dates back to 2009 when Nadarkhani was arrested after complaining that his son was being taught Islam in school. He eventually was sentenced to death by the court of appeals. Earlier this year the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentence but ordered a lower court to examine whether Nadarkhani was ever a Muslim – a fact essential to determine whether he left Islam for Christianity. But that lower court in Rasht, Iran, found that although Nadarkhani was never a practicing Muslim he remained guilty of apostasy because he had Muslim ancestry.

In late September 2011, he was given four chances to recant his faith in court and refused each time. His case then was referred to the ayatollah. The American Center for Law and Justice reported one of his court exchanges.

“Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?” Nadarkhani asked.

“To the religion of your ancestors, Islam,” the judge reportedly replied.

“I cannot,” the pastor responded.

Related stories
Report: Jailed Iran pastor facing abuse, torture
Iran officials pressure pastor to convert
2/22/2012 2:16:26 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Vanderbilt policy to impact Baptist group

February 22 2012 by Lonnie Wilkey, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Leaders of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) at Vanderbilt University are determining how a new policy will affect the BCM ministry on campus.

On Jan. 31, the administration of Vanderbilt met with students to explain its enforcement of the university’s non-discrimination policy and a new “all-comers” policy.
The all-comers policy means that any student at Vanderbilt is entitled to become a member and to seek a leadership position in any registered student organization on campus.

Thom Thornton, BCM director at Vanderbilt, said the BCM has had an “open door” philosophy on campus when it comes to students participating in their ministry. “We want to create an atmosphere where non-Christian students feel welcome,” Thornton said. Students can then develop friendships and engage in conversations which can lead to witnessing opportunities, invitations to Bible studies and eventually to students accepting Christ, he continued.

The dilemma for the BCM and other organizations on campus is what criteria can be used to select leadership. The new policy states that student organizations cannot discriminate in membership or leadership, cannot have a statement of faith that they require leaders to sign, cannot have a faith prerequisite for leadership and cannot select leaders in a discriminatory manner, Thornton noted.

He said one administrator said that if faith was the only criterion for holding a leadership position, it would be discriminatory.

Thornton noted that while faith is a key element for BCM leaders, it is not the only criterion used.

The BCM currently uses a selection process for leadership in which Thornton appoints a selection committee that interviews all leadership applicants. After that process has occurred, the leaders are chosen.

Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University

Bill Choate, collegiate ministries coordinator for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, acknowledged that faith is one of the criteria used for selecting leaders at all BCM ministries in the state.

“If faith can’t be one of the criteria, we have a major crisis,” he observed.

“At this point we do not have enough clarification from the university to know what they are asking of us,” Thornton said.

While most of the outcry to the policy has come from religious and Christian organizations on campus, the policy affects all organizations, the two BCM leaders noted.

Choate observed that the new policy is an over-reaction by Vanderbilt administrators to an earlier incident in which a Christian fraternity asked an openly gay member to resign. The young man later filed a discrimination complaint against the university.

As a result, the school “stepped up its discrimination policy and removed a statement in the student handbook that protected religious organizations and their right to elect leaders,” he said.

“For months we thought the university would back away from this ridiculous position, but now it looks like they may not,” Choate said.

“Part of our strategy is to be good citizens of the universities in which we minister,” Choate said. “Vanderbilt may deny us that opportunity.”

The BCM has been a part of a diverse community for 85 years at Vanderbilt, he added.

“It looks like the university wants to decrease diversity on campus,” Choate concluded.

Thornton noted the BCM is trying to work with the university and be supportive of its non-discrimination policy. At the same time, Thornton said it is important to be able to select BCM leaders who support the vision and purpose of the organization.

“We can’t compromise on that,” Thornton said.

As it stood before the all-comers rule, the BCM was in compliance, Thornton said.

Four on-campus organizations had been cited for non-compliance – the Christian Legal Society, Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Student Fellowship and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Campus organizations have until April 16 each year to complete Vanderbilt’s documents to become a recognized group on campus.

Thornton said meetings will be taking place among its leadership to decide the next steps to take. Any action taken must receive approval from the local BCM board, he added. “Our desire is to be a recognized student organization at Vanderbilt,” Thornton said, noting the BCM is the second oldest religious organization on the Vanderbilt campus.

“At the same time, we will hold to the integrity of our religious beliefs,” Thornton promised.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist & Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.)
2/22/2012 2:05:13 PM by Lonnie Wilkey, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Task force: Keep SBC name, adopt informal option

February 21 2012 by Michael Foust, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The task force appointed to study a possible name change of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is recommending the convention maintain its legal name but adopt an informal, non-legal name for those who want to use it: Great Commission Baptists.
The report Monday night (Feb. 20) ended weeks of speculation by Southern Baptists and fellow evangelicals as to what the task force would do. The convention was formed in 1845, and a name change was first proposed in 1903, although one was not adopted then, or since.

The task force was appointed by Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright.

“This is an issue that just won’t die,” task force chairman Jimmy Draper said in presenting the task force’s recommendation to the Executive Committee, which will consider it today (Feb. 21).
The name “Southern,” Draper said, is a barrier to the gospel in some regions of the country.
If the Executive Committee approves it today, then convention messengers will consider it in New Orleans in June at the SBC annual meeting.

The recommendation would mean that the legal name of the convention would remain “Southern Baptist Convention” and could be used by any church which wishes to use it. But other SBC churches could call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” if they wish.

“We believe that the equity that we have in the name Southern Baptist Convention is valuable,” Draper said during the task force’s recommendation. “It is a strong name that identifies who we are in theology, morality and ethics, compassion, ministry and mission in the world. It is a name that is recognized globally in these areas.”

Photo by Morris Abernathy

Bryant Wright, left, president of the Southern BaptistConvention, and Jimmy Draper, chairman of the task force appointed by Wright to study a possible name change of the Southern Baptist Convention, field questions about “Great Commission Baptists” during a news conference after the committee’s report to the SBC Executive Committee. Baptist Press editor Art Toalston, right, moderated the session with the media and observers.

Draper continued: “We also recognize the need that some may have to use a name that is not associated with a national region as indicated by the word ‘Southern.’ We want to do everything we can to encourage those who do feel a name change would be beneficial without recommending a legal name change for the convention. We believe we have found a way to do that.”

The goal from the beginning, Draper said, “was to consider the removal of any barrier to the effective proclamation of the gospel and reaching people for Christ.”

Website URLs already have been secured, the task force said, in case the Executive Committee and convention approves the informal name.

Changing the legal name, Draper said, would have been fraught with problems.

“We believe that the potential benefits of a legal name change do not outweigh the potential risks that would be involved in a legal name change,” Draper said. “Changing the name of the convention would require a great cost in dollars and in energy, and would present huge challenges legally that create a multitude of issues. The value of a name change does not justify the risks involved.

“At the same time, we are concerned about the negative perception that the word ‘Southern’ may carry in certain geographic areas of North America. But even there, the opinions are mixed on this issue. From leaders in non-Southern states, one-half of those we heard from reported that it would be a benefit to them to change the name, but the other half said it would not be a benefit. It is true that the leaders of African American and other ethnic Southern Baptist churches indicated that it would be helpful to them.”

Keeping the legal name while using an informal, non-legal name would be a “win-win” situation, Draper said.

Two task force members spoke to the Executive Committee regarding the report: Ken Fentress, pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., and Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Why am I Southern Baptist?” Fentress asked. “This is a question that I’ve been confronted with several times over the years, and it’s probably true that most African Americans are Southern Baptist despite objections of many in the larger black Christian community.”

The convention’s ties to slavery upon its founding in 1845 is a barrier to some in the African American community, Fentress said, saying “the name Southern Baptist is full of meaning, significance and history.

“For many African Americans, our reasons for being Southern Baptist are theological – not cultural, not political, not geographical,” Fentress said. “... I am a Southern Baptist specifically because of the theology for which the Conservative Resurgence stood.”

The SBC name, he said, has been “a source of difficulty for church planters ... serving in areas outside the American South.”

Paige Patterson, a task force member and president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he has favored a name change of the convention for a while, saying the convention is no longer regional and that “Southern” is offensive to some.

The report, he said, is one that “satisfies my conscience on all levels to a degree I never thought possible. I support it enthusiastically.”

At a news conference, Draper said that in recent history, messengers have not been given a report explaining the rationale behind the argument for a new name.

“I don’t think Southern Baptists, at large, ever really saw the bigger picture, and when we came to the conventions, the vote was usually an emotional vote,” Draper said.

The task force, Draper said, is praying that when people come to the convention in June – if the report is OK’d by the Executive Committee – “the people [will] at least have a background on which to make a decision.”

“We’re not stipulating that anybody do anything,” Draper said of a church’s usage of a name. “Already, Southern Baptists can do anything they want to do. But it really would very helpful ... to so many that have become disenchanted [that] if they use a name other than Southern Baptist, Southern Baptists said, ‘That’s OK.’“

The task force believes “Great Commission Baptists” can be trademarked, Draper said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)
2/21/2012 6:53:11 PM by Michael Foust, Baptist Press | with 1 comments

Knicks’ Jeremy Lin dubbed the ‘Taiwanese Tebow’

February 21 2012 by Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin’s underdog story and outspoken evangelical faith have some sportswriters dubbing him the “Taiwanese Tebow.”
But while Lin and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow share similar Christian convictions, Lin’s rise to stardom is even more miraculous.
Just a few weeks ago, the Harvard University graduate was buried on the bench and crashing on friends’ couches. Stadium security guards mistook Lin for a team trainer.
After injuries to teammates, though, Lin was inserted into the starting lineup. The Knicks have promptly won several games in a row, with their new point guard leading the way, sending the New Yorkers and Asian-Americans across the country into a frenzy of “Linsanity.”

RNS photo by Noah K. Murray/The Star Ledger

New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has been called the “Taiwanese Tebow” for his open expressions of Christian faith.

Fans splurge for replicas of Lin’s jersey, the TV ratings of Knicks games have skyrocketed and shares of the Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the basketball team, reached an all-time high on Feb. 13.
Like any good point guard, Lin knows the art of the pass – distributing the praise to his teammates and to God.
“I’m just thankful to God for everything,” Lin said in a recent post-game interview. “Like the Bible says, ‘God works in all things for the good of those who love him.’”
Lin’s passing reference to Romans 8:28 was caught by his longtime pastor, Stephen Chen of Redeemer Bible Fellowship, a ministry within the Chinese Church in Christ in Mountain View, Calif.
Chen describes the church as full of first- and second-generation immigrants, like Lin and his parents, who are “conservative in nature” and evangelical in faith.
“Very early in his life he decided to pay heed to the call of Christ to take up the cross daily and follow after him,” Chen said.
Even during basketball season, when games went deep into Saturday night, Lin’s family made sure he was in the pews on Sunday morning, Chen said.
Lin also credits his parents with teaching him to play “godly basketball,” which measures success by sportsmanship, not stats. That means putting teammates first and showing respect to opponents and referees.
As his star rose, first at Harvard and then with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, Lin shared his faith testimony with youth groups and churches near his California home.
In a 2011 appearance at River of Life Christian Church in Santa Clara, he quoted from the works of John Piper, a prominent neo-Calvinist pastor in Minneapolis, and spoke of trusting in “God’s sovereign plan.”
Chen, who said he recently spoke to Lin, expects his sharp-shooting congregant to continue his evangelism in the bright lights of the Big Apple. “He is really looking forward to using the platform that he has to share the gospel with others,” Chen said.
Lin already uses his social media platforms to spread the Word.
His Twitter account’s description is, “to know Him is to want to know Him more.” His account’s avatar depicts Jesus telling a young man, “No, I’m not just talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me.” His Facebook page quotes Colossians 3:23 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
Tom Krattenmaker, author of the book “Onward Christian Athletes,” is among the many who see some similarities between Lin and Tebow. Like Tebow, Lin has spoken of relying on faith to help carry him through the highs and lows of his sports career, and both men often praise God during post-game interviews.
Lin himself has called Tebow “a polarizing figure,” but also said that he draws inspiration from the young quarterback’s example.
“I think the things he says in interviews, his approach to the game is just unbelievable and I respect him so much,” Lin recently told a California radio station.
Unlike Tebow, however, Lin does not yet have a signature gesture – a la “Tebowing,” the prayerful kneeling that became an Internet meme last fall. (The fast flow of basketball rarely affords time for sustained public piety.)
Michael Luo, a New York Times reporter, sees other differences between Lin and Tebow.
“I have the sense that (Lin’s) is a quieter, potentially less polarizing but no less devout style of faith,” Luo wrote in a column recently. And while Tebow appeared in an anti-abortion Super Bowl ad two years ago, Asian- Americans tend to avoid the culture wars, Luo wrote.
Still, as one of the very few Asian-Americans to ever reach the NBA, Lin will have millions following his every move, said Melanie Mar Chow of the Asian-American Christian Fellowship campus ministry. Already college campuses are buzzing with talk of his “Linderella story.”
“We could probably count on one hand the number of Asian-Americans who are prominent Christians,” Mar Chow said. “It’s great to have a role model like him.”

Related story

Linsanity, Tebow-mania & the evangelistic witness
2/21/2012 6:43:21 PM by Daniel Burke, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

NYC churches suffer last-minute decision

February 21 2012 by Erin Roach, Baptist Press

NEW YORK – The New York City Department of Education won a last-minute appeal to keep churches from meeting for worship in public schools, revoking previously issued permits just hours before congregations were scheduled to gather.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled late Feb. 17 that a temporary restraining order issued Feb. 16 by a judge from the district court applied only to the Bronx Household of Faith – the plaintiffs in an ongoing legal battle – and not to other churches.

“The Department of Education is legitimately concerned about public schools being affiliated with a particular religious belief or practice,” Jane Gordon, a lawyer for the city, said, according to The New York Times.

Churches were notified by email around 9:30 Friday night that they would not be allowed to gather as planned on Sunday, Ray Parascando, pastor of Crossroads Church in Staten Island, N.Y., told Baptist Press.

Crossroads had received a permit from the school system that day to meet for two more Sundays after Judge Loretta Preska of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted a 10-day stay while the court reviewed the case.

Crossroads Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Staten Island, N.Y., has been meeting in the Public School 52 auditorium for more than four years. If a recent New York City ban on churches meeting in public schools is not reversed, Crossroads will have to transition to another meeting space.

Parascando planned to stand outside P.S. 52, where Crossroads met for more than four years, and tell people they couldn’t go in Sunday morning because the city had blocked their access.

“There are numerous people who don’t have Facebook and email, who aren’t media savvy, and they’re just going to show up because they think it’s church as usual – because that’s what we were communicating because we had a permit,” Parascando said.

“There are people who budget their money just right to go to work and to church [on public transportation], and there are people who actually look forward to going to church for encouragement,” the pastor said. “So I felt like it was a total disregard for the things of God.”

The Alliance Defense Fund – which is representing Bronx Household of Faith – expressed optimism that Preska would make the ruling broader, applying it to all churches.

“We expect Judge Preska to issue a preliminary injunction within the next week, and it should apply to all religious groups desiring to hold worship services in the NYC public schools,” ADF senior counsel Jordan Lorence wrote in a blog post.

Crossroads held a news conference in front of the school Sunday morning, and several public officials were there to show support. That evening, they gathered at another church for worship.

“We were overwhelmed by how many churches were willing to take us in and to open their doors to us,” Parascando said.

During Crossroads’ worship service Sunday evening, several local pastors asked to speak.

“They said they stand with us, that this is wrong, that when Crossroads is being persecuted by the mayor and the city, they’re being persecuted, and when we’re all being persecuted, Christ is being persecuted,” Parascando recounted.

“One by one, they gave us a love offering. I thought that was a really powerful moment of churches standing up for each other.”

Parascando also received a text message that day from the pastor of Crossroads Church in Newnan, Ga., a fellow Southern Baptist congregation, telling him the church had been praying for them. Crossroads Newnan had collected a love offering that day of nearly $15,000 for Crossroads Staten Island, Parascando said.

The New York church considered the unexpected gift a provision from the Lord. Before he knew of the latest twist in the ongoing saga, Parascando had planned to preach that night a sermon entitled “Where God Guides, He Provides” from Psalm 23.

“So we really felt the power of the Holy Spirit present even though we weren’t in our own building ... even though we were thrown out in the cold,” Parascando said. “We felt like it was one of our most powerful services ever.

“The Bible is very clear: Blessed are those who are persecuted. Obviously we’re nowhere near persecuted to the extent of those who have their lives in question in remote parts of the world, but this is more of an American type of persecution.”

When the New York City Department of Education banned churches from meeting in schools, Parascando considered it an affront to the American flag, which stands for liberty, he said. But when they acted at the last minute to keep churches out despite a 10-day stay, he considered it an affront to the cross of Christ, he said.

“The churches’ beliefs and values are being called into question,” Parascando said. “I think the most misunderstood and misapplied statement in America today is the separation of church and state.”

Crossroads is a church of lower to middle class people, Parascando said, and they hope to move soon to an abandoned theater at a rental cost of $6,500 more per month than they were paying at the school. They will have to trust God to provide the finances, the pastor said.

Despite the hardship, Crossroads is comforted by churches across the nation praying for them and other New York congregations.

“I had people emailing me, saying they’re praying for us. I think the enemy wants to use this to divide, and God is using it to unify,” Parascando said.

“Our churches are so quick to sponsor and to partner,” he said of the Southern Baptist Convention. “... What a blessing these bigger churches in the South are to their little brothers here in the North.”

New York Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who spoke at the Crossroads news conference Sunday, said the Department of Education is unfairly targeting religious institutions that have the same right to rent public spaces as any other group.

“To exclude only these groups is plain wrong,” Malliotakis said. “These organizations contribute to the fabric of our community through their acts of volunteerism and charity. Their mistreatment by the city is unjust, and an affront to our nation’s basic principle of freedom of religion.”

New York City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who has been speaking out on behalf of churches, said some congregations have nowhere else to go now that they cannot meet in schools.

“What is better, having religious groups out on sidewalks and inside parks, or having them pay the city to meet inside empty school buildings?” Cabrera said. “This policy is simply ridiculous. Albany must act.”

Legislation stalled in the state Assembly that would overrule the Department of Education if signed by the governor.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press.)
2/21/2012 2:50:47 PM by Erin Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Famine danger looms in Africa’s Sahel

February 21 2012 by Mark Kelly, Baptist Press

DAKAR, Senegal – Aid groups worldwide are rallying to head off an emerging hunger crisis that threatens as many as 11 million people in Africa’s Sahel region.
“Even in good years, hunger is a chronic problem in the Sahel,” said Mark Hatfield, who with his wife Susan directs work in Sub-Saharan Africa for Baptist Global Response. “In 2011, the rains came late or not at all over much of the region, and harvests have been very limited. One country estimates agricultural production may be down as much as 75 percent. Families will run out of food quickly, food prices will skyrocket and malnutrition will reach emergency levels, especially among infants and children.”

At a Feb. 15 emergency meeting in Dakar, Senegal, government and relief group leaders called for a “rapid and robust response” to avoid a widespread famine, according to Reuters news service. “We are having an emergency meeting to avoid a full blown emergency,” Josette Sheeran, head of the U.N. World Food Programme, said at a news conference.

Humanitarian workers are working to ward off widespread famine in the Sahel a 3,400-mile expanse that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, between the Sahara desert to the north and the savanna to the south.

UNICEF estimates more than 1 million children under age 5 will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition, according to Reuters.

Southern Baptists are being called to action to help save lives, said Jeff Palmer, Baptist Global Response executive director.

“Families in Sub-Saharan Africa suffer constantly from malnutrition, and the possibility of famine is never more than a few months away,” Palmer said. “We saw millions of people in danger of starving this past fall in the Horn of Africa, and tens of thousands died. This crisis could be worse if steps are not taken now to head off the crisis.

“Because Southern Baptists cared enough to respond to the Horn of Africa famine, lives were spared,” Palmer added. “We know God’s Spirit will be moving in the hearts of people who care to reach out to endangered souls in the Sahel.”

The Sahel is a 3,400-mile expanse that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, between the Sahara desert to the north and the savanna to the south. Its name derives from an Arabic word that means “shore” – the Sahel appears to run as a coastline along the southern edge of the Sahara’s ocean of sand. The Sahel covers parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Cameroon and Eritrea.

The United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg and the European Union already have made cash donations to stave off the crisis, Reuters reported. International relief initiatives in the Sahel will include such measures as market gardens, seed distribution, well and irrigation projects, food for work, livestock vaccinations, community education and ready-to-use food therapies.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Mark Kelly writes for Baptist Global Response.)
2/21/2012 2:46:11 PM by Mark Kelly, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Baptist ethicist on mandate: We’d rather go to jail, pay fines

February 20 2012 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives that can cause abortions harms not only Baptists and other religious adherents but all Americans, two Southern Baptist ethicists told a congressional panel Feb. 16.
Their comments came during a four-and-a-half-hour hearing on the federal rule’s impact on freedom of religion and conscience before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives. Ten representatives of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish bodies spoke in opposition to the mandate and what critics describe as its lack of sufficient religious and conscience protections for houses of worship, religious institutions and individuals.

C. Ben Mitchell of Union University told the committee the rule “is an unconscionable intrusion by the state into the consciences of American citizens.”

“Contrary to portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not just a Catholic issue,” said Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy at the Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. “All people of faith – and even those who claim no faith – have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry. Religious liberty and the freedom to obey one’s conscience is also not just a Baptist issue. It’s an American issue enshrined in our founding documents.”
Testifying as part of the same panel, Craig Mitchell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told members the requirement “is wrong not just for religious conservatives.”

C. Ben Mitchell of Union University, center, and Craig Mitchell, right, of Southwestern Seminary are among five witnesses sworn in for a Feb. 16 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the Obama administration’s mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives which, pro-life advocates say, can cause abortions.

“It’s wrong for all Americans, because it takes away the freedom of the citizens while emboldening the federal government to do whatever it wants,” said Craig Mitchell, associate professor of Christian ethics at the seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s wrong because it violates the Constitution. It’s wrong because it violates religious liberty. It’s wrong because it forces people to violate their consciences. ... This ruling is just plain wrong for America.”

The Mitchells, who are unrelated, added their voices to the growing public dissent by Southern Baptists against the “contraceptive mandate,” as it has become known. Southern Baptist leaders have joined the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, other Protestant bodies and some Jewish organizations in opposition to the rule since the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Jan. 20 that health plans must cover contraceptives and sterilizations as preventive services for employees.

The HHS mandate requires all methods approved as birth control by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be included in a range of services offered to patients free of charge. Those FDA-endorsed contraceptives include ones that have abortion-causing properties – “ella;” emergency contraception, such as Plan B, and the intrauterine device (IUD). Those methods all have mechanisms that can prevent tiny embryos from implanting in the uterine wall. In the case of “ella,” it also can block production of the hormone progesterone, destroying the placenta that provides nutrition to the embryo and causing the unborn child’s death.

Opponents of the rule especially have protested its failure to provide an adequate religious or conscience exemption. The rule includes an exception for employers who oppose paying for such coverage on religious grounds, but it is narrowly drawn. It will protect many churches and other houses of worship, but it apparently will not cover churches that may primarily serve people outside their faith. The exemption also will not extend to such faith-based organizations as schools, hospitals and social service programs.

After an onslaught of criticism, President Obama announced a change Feb. 10, saying religious organizations would not have to pay for or provide contraceptives if they object on religious grounds. Instead, he said, their insurance companies would be required to pay for such services.

Southern Baptist leaders and other opponents said Obama’s solution did not address the religious liberty and conscience problems. Some described it as an “accounting gimmick” that would still require religious organizations to be complicit in paying for employees’ abortion-causing contraceptives through their insurance companies.

Dub Oliver, president of East Texas Baptist University (ETBU), expressed concern about the mandate.

“Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this entire episode for ETBU is that we have no idea where this road will end,” Oliver told the panel. “Today, the administration is trying to force us to provide our employees with abortion-causing drugs. What’s next?

“If the government can force Catholic monks to dispense birth control, what can’t the government do?” Oliver asked. “If the government can decide that East Texas Baptist University is not religious enough to have the right to religious liberty, what can’t the government do? If this administration can just decide that religious believers are less important than its chosen policy goals, what can’t it do?”

To add to opponents’ dissatisfaction with the president’s revision, HHS did not actually change the rule. As witnesses and at least one Republican committee member said in the Feb. 16 hearing, nothing changed after Obama’s announcement. The Heritage Foundation reported the final regulation published Feb. 15 in the Federal Register did not include the language described by Obama.

The witnesses at the House panel hearing expressed a determination not to comply with the requirement even in the face of fines – that some described as potentially in the millions of dollars – or possible imprisonment.

Because Southern Baptists believe in a free church in a free state, “tens of thousands of us, maybe hundreds of thousands of us, would be very willing to spend nights in jail for the sake of the preservation of religious liberty,” C. Ben Mitchell told the committee. “It’s not just our coffers that are at risk. It is our very freedom.”

Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said, “Religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government. ... We must obey God rather than men, and we will.”

William Thierfelder, president of the Roman Catholic Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, told panel members, “This is an issue worth dying for, and many have.”

Both Mitchells cited the religious liberty contribution of Baptists to American freedom and the efforts of such Baptist leaders of other eras as Roger Williams, John Leland and Isaac Backus.

Craig Mitchell told the committee, “The thing that concerns me is that if [administration officials] don’t see this as a religious liberty issue, what do they see as a religious liberty issue? And where do they stop? What I see here is a hollowing out of what the concept of religious liberty is almost to the point of eventually it will be nonexistent.”

The committee’s Democrats, who are in the minority, protested the failure of the first panel of five witnesses to include a woman. The second panel included two women among five witnesses. Many focused on women’s access to contraceptives, and some defended the president’s announced change.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D.-N.Y., asked, “Where are the women?” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D.-Va., decried the hearing as a “sham.”

Rep. James Lankford – a Southwestern Seminary graduate along with both Mitchells – was one of the Republican committee members who denied the hearing was about access to contraceptives or women’s rights.

The Oklahoma congressman said, “Today, this hearing is about: Can this administration, or any administration, say, ‘I know your doctrine, but I have a different doctrine, and you will change your doctrine to my doctrine or I will fine you?’”

C. Ben Mitchell also is a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Craig Mitchell also is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Seminary. ETBU, which is located in Marshall, is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Archived video of the hearing is available at http://1.usa.gov/wr2AZg
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)

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2/20/2012 2:25:40 PM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 1 comments

N.J. Gov. Christie vetoes gay ‘marriage’ bill

February 20 2012 by Baptist Press

TRENTON, N.J. (BP) – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a gay “marriage” bill Feb .17, following through on a promise he made when he ran for governor.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s House of Delegates narrowly approved a similar bill Friday afternoon. It now goes to the Senate, and the governor, who has vowed to sign it. Opponents have pledged to try and overturn it at the ballot.
The New Jersey bill was a top priority of Democratic leaders in the state legislature, and it sailed through the Senate 24-16 Feb. 13 and the Assembly 42-33 three days later with little Republican support. Neither margin is veto-proof. No GOP assembly members supported it, and only two Republican senators did.

Christie, a Republican, pledged during his 2010 campaign that he would veto a gay “marriage” bill. The outcome of that election directly impacted the current bill: the Democratic governor he defeated, Jon Corzine, supported gay “marriage.”

Despite the veto threat, supporters of the bill celebrated when the bill passed the legislature.

“Without question, this is a historic day in the state of New Jersey,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said, according to The Star-Ledger.

Democrats and supporters immediately said they would work on gaining enough votes to overturn a veto, and they have until January 2014 to do so, The Star-Ledger said. That’s the end of the session.

Traditionalists took comfort in the veto but also criticized the legislature.

“We believe it to be the highest form of hubris when those in authority tinker with natural law and challenge God in His creation of the natural order. He will not be mocked,” said Len Deo, founder and president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council. “... Those in favor of this bill have long argued that the people shouldn’t be allowed to vote on retaining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, but rather that the legislature should decide for them. They have tried the courts and now the legislature; however, we believe this is such a huge public policy shift that the people should weigh in.”

Yet there probably will not be a vote at the ballot because Democratic leaders oppose it.

Traditionalists warned the legalization of gay “marriage” would have a widespread negative impact on New Jersey society, affecting the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the religious liberty of private businesses and curriculum in elementary schools.

In Massachusetts – where marriage has been redefined – a second-grade class read a book, “King & King,” about a prince who “marries” another prince.

In Vermont, where gay “marriage” is legal, the ACLU sued a bed and breakfast after it declined to host a same-sex “wedding” reception. Illinois saw a similar lawsuit, when a male couple filed a discrimination suit against two bed and breakfasts that refused to host their civil union ceremony.
2/20/2012 2:24:07 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Syria bloodshed: ‘same hopelessness’

February 20 2012 by Erich Bridges, Baptist Press

MIDDLE EAST – As Syria’s murderous civil war spreads, global leaders have begun to focus on the dangerous regional struggles affecting the conflict: Syrian ally Iran versus Arab regional powers, Sunni versus Shiite Muslims, the fate of Syria’s unstable neighbors and what might happen next if the regime of President Bashar Assad falls.

But on the streets of Homs, symbolic heart of the Syrian rebellion, what’s happening right now matters far more.

A Syrian father and son are seen on a street in Damascus, Syria’s capital, in this file photo. As Syria descends deeper into civil war, a Southern Baptist worker in the Middle East asks for prayer: “This is a country of over 20 million people – Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Druse, Orthodox, Christian, Bedouin and Gypsies, you name it. And it’s a place where we have virtually no access, no sustainable presence or witness right now. It’s one of the darkest, least-engaged places in the whole Middle East.”

The body count there mounts daily. The Syrian army began raining rockets and mortar fire on the city of more than 1 million people Feb. 4 – apparently determined to crush the 11-month-old uprising in its cradle. Attacks continue, killing both ragtag rebels and civilians in neighborhoods controlled by insurgents. Women weep for dead husbands and children. Families hide in their homes, fearing not only artillery fire but death by sniper if they step outside.

One observer watching from a distance feels the weight of the unfolding tragedy deeply.
“It hits pretty close to home with me,” said a Southern Baptist worker based in the Middle East. “We have some really dear, close friends and ministry partners who live in a neighboring country, but they’re from that city. Their families are in that city. There are [Christian] believers in that city that we don’t have a status on right now. So it’s really difficult to watch.”

The worker often tells churches back home in the United States that things aren’t nearly as bad in the Middle East as they are portrayed in the news. But in the case of Syria, where a ban on international media coverage blocks access to most areas, he believes the situation is even worse than the bloody images splashing across TV screens and newspapers.

“It has the potential of descending into full-out civil war, and that would be tragic,” he said. “It’s such a huge burden on my heart right now. This is a country of over 20 million people – Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Druse, Orthodox, Christian, Bedouin and Gypsies, you name it. And it’s a place where we have virtually no access, no sustainable presence or witness right now. It’s one of the darkest, least-engaged places in the whole Middle East.”

The immediate future looks bleak, he added. Despite increasing army defections to the rebels, the Syrian military remains far more powerful and well-equipped than insurgent factions. He doubts the Assad regime, which has held power for 40 years, will step down. Even if they do, the many contending forces in Syria and the wider region complicate Syria’s future.

One example of the complexity: the tenuous status of Syria’s ancient Christian community. The Syrian city of Antioch was the site of the first Christian church outside Jerusalem, according to the New Testament. Syrian Christians account for up to 10 percent of the national population. Most of them, whether Orthodox or evangelical, reportedly support the Assad government, which has offered them a measure of protection from Islamic radicals.

A woman joins others in prayer in a church in Damascus, Syria, in this file photo. Syrian Christians account for up to 10 percent of the Mideast nation’s population. Many of them reportedly support the embattled Assad regime, which has provided a measure of protection from Islamic radicals. Syrian Orthodox leaders have called for gradual reforms rather than regime change.

What will happen to them if the regime run by minority Alawites, a relatively moderate offshoot of Shia Islam, falls and an Islamist government dominated by the Sunni majority takes its place? The thousands of persecuted Christian refugees who have flooded into Syria from neighboring Iraq and other unstable countries in the region share that fear. Syrian Orthodox leaders have called for gradual reforms rather than regime change.

“Look what has happened [to minority Christians] in Iraq and now in Egypt,” a Syrian Christian woman told Global Post news service. “Assad in power means that won’t happen here.”

Despite the deepening fear and darkness, God is moving “in incredible ways,” the Southern Baptist worker said.

“We’re getting just a glimpse of that because we have Syrian refugees who are coming across the border into neighboring countries,” he reported. “In one country in particular, we’ve had a relief project going on. Over the past few months in one area alone, more than 10,000 people have heard the Good News of Jesus. And we’re seeing response that is amazing. God is stirring among the nations right now and drawing people to Himself in the midst of tragedy and suffering.”

As people in the West watch the tumult unfolding throughout the Middle East, “we have a crisis of belief,” he said. “We want to believe that God is at work, but it’s hard because of everything that’s going on. We need people to believe that God is orchestrating events of our day according to His redemptive purpose – from Tunisia to Bahrain, all across the whole region. This is all part of His plan. Whether in war or peace, pray that God will be glorified in this. Pray that doors will be opened in these places. Pray for fertile soil.

“The thing that saddens me most is this: You get a sense of excitement when you see millions of people chanting for democracy. But on the other side of that change is ultimately the same hopelessness that everyone began with, because they don’t have Christ. That’s what cuts you to the core. So regardless of what’s happening – war, peace, whoever the ruler or the regime – the task is still the same. You’ve got to watch what God is doing and be ready to respond, like we are among the refugees of Syria, and expect amazing things.”

He asked Christians to pray that believers in Syria and beyond will be courageous.

“Our tendency is to pray for preservation,” he said, “but we should pray for much more: that they would be a light, that they would be bold, even in situations where they are oppressed and suffering. I want to pray for more than just preservation. I want to pray that this would be a time that the church would be bold and courageous. In times of war and human suffering when people’s needs are so great is when they are open to the gospel. It’s a time when they need to be confronted with the love and the claims of Christ.”

Most of all, he pleaded, pray for access to the millions of people in the Middle East who hunger for real peace and have nowhere to turn.

“We know that God is moving; we just need access to these people,” he said. “We feel there is fertile soil for the gospel right now.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is an IMB (International Mission Board) global correspondent.)
2/20/2012 2:16:25 PM by Erich Bridges, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Iran raids house church, arrests Christians

February 20 2012 by Baptist Press, Compass Direct News

ISTANBUL – Iranian authorities in early February arrested Christian converts from Islam while they were meeting for worship at a home in the southern city of Shiraz, according to sources.

Officials are holding the Christians at an unknown location, they told Compass Direct News.
The sources put the number of the arrested Christians, who belong to one of Iran’s many underground house churches, at between six and 10. Authorities often detain, question and apply pressure on converts from Islam, viewing them as elements of Western propaganda set against the Iranian regime; as a result, the converts are forced to worship in secret.

The identity of only one of those arrested on Feb. 8, Mojtaba Hosseini, was known. Authorities arrested Hosseini in 2008 along with eight other Christian converts on charges of being Christians, according to Mohabat News.

“I guess they have been watching Hosseini since then,” an Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass.

Shiraz is not a particularly “religious” part of predominantly Shiite Islamic Iran, the Christian explained, but persecution against Christians in Iran stems from the government more than from local religious sentiment. The families of the victims have requested information about their whereabouts, but authorities have refused to provide it, according to Mohabat News.

In past years authorities have arrested Christians around Christmas time, and the Compass source said that the international community and media monitoring religious rights in Iran were expecting another crackdown last December. Instead, he said, the government was more cautious and arrested small groups over a wider period of time.

In December authorities arrested a group of Christian converts in the city of Ahwaz, about 540 miles southwest of Tehran in Khuzestan Province. Of those arrested, three Christians remain in prison: Pastor Farhad Sabokroh, Naser Zamen-Defzuli and Davoud Alijani. They are held in Ahwaz’s Karoun Prison, according to Mohabat News.

Sources have expressed concern for Sabokroh’s health. Prior to his arrest, which took place at his church’s Christmas service on Dec. 23, Sabokroh underwent cataract surgery. In prison he does not have access to the medication he needs for his eyes. His wife visited him briefly on Jan. 27 and said she was concerned about his health, as he has lost a lot of weight, according to Mohabat News.

Authorities had also arrested Sabokroh’s wife at the Christmas service and released her on Jan. 1 when she submitted the deed of a house as bail, according to Mohabat News. Christians are forced to put their homes up as bail in Iran, a practice that sources say is an extortion tactic to erode them of their finances and to better control them.

Authorities have not formally charged Sabokroh, Zamen-Defzuli and Alijani.

Iranian authorities continue to arrest and subject Christians to harsh treatment, but many of these cases remain unknown to the outside world. At the end of January, Mohabat News released information on the case of Leila Mohammadi, whom authorities had arrested in July last year.

She spent 74 days in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin prison. On Jan. 18 a judge sentenced her to two years of prison for “collaborating with foreign-dependent groups, broad anti-Islamic propaganda, deceiving citizens by forming house churches, insulting sacred figures and acting against national security,” according to Mohabat News.

Authorities released her on bail on Dec. 28, 2011, and her attorney has sent her case to Tehran Province’s high court.

Iran applies sharia (Islamic law), which dictates that converts from Islam to other religions are “apostates” and thus punishable by death. Although judges rarely sentence Christians to death for leaving Islam, one Christian, Yousef (also spelled Youcef) Nadarkhani, is appealing such a decision in the northeastern city of Rasht.

Nadarkhani has been in prison since October 2009. A Rasht court found him guilty of leaving Islam and handed him the death sentence in September 2010.

Asked if there was a change in persecution trends from previous years, the Compass source said, “Nothing has changed, the issue is the same,” explaining that the attitude of the government toward Christians remains hostile.

Authorities have prohibited musical worship and Bible distribution at the Central Church of Tehran, the largest and most visible Assemblies of God church in the country. Last December officials enforced a policy under which only invited guests could attend a Christmas service at the church, and in December 2009 the church succumbed to intense pressure by authorities to discontinue its Friday services, which had attracted the most converts to Christianity.

(EDITOR’S NOTE– This story first appeared in Compass Direct News [compassdirect.org]. Based in Santa Ana, Calif., Compass focuses on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.)
2/20/2012 1:50:59 PM by Baptist Press, Compass Direct News | with 0 comments

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