Baptists still face state-sponsored religious discrimination, 400 years after the first Baptists sought religious freedom from the intolerant King James I of England, head of the Church of England.
One such place is the Republic of Serbia.
The Serbian government classifies Baptists as a “confessional community, which has considerably less rights than the privileged religious community,” said Dane Vidovic, general secretary of the Union of Baptist Churches in Serbia. “One point of discrimination has to do with the taxes for building or renovation [of] church buildings.”
Speaking to global Baptists gathered in Amsterdam for the 400th celebration of Baptist beginnings in that city in 1609, Vidovic recalled how the communists had destroyed the First Baptist Church of Belgrade in 1973 and never paid for the destruction of church property. After changes in several governments and years of struggle obtaining approval either to build or to renovate its meeting space, the church finally received permission from the Serbian government to make structural changes in 2008, conditioned on its paying a huge tax bill.
The state demanded a payment of 90,000 Euros, far more than would have to be paid by the “privileged churches,” such as the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which would only have to pay 15,000 Euros, said Vidovic.
“In Serbia, there is no open religious persecution,” he said. “[T]here are all sorts of manipulations, legal, bureaucratic, administrative and political, in order to make lives of Baptists and other evangelicals miserable.”
When Serbia adopted a new religion law in 2006, the Union of Baptist Churches in Serbia refused to register with the state because Baptists would have had to “accept discrimination,” said Vidovic, who is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Belgrade.
He said the Serbian Orthodox Church was behind the religion law and that Serbia rejected the separation of church and state in favor of the “symphony between church and state.”
Graphite on a Belgrade wall had the words, “We vote, the church decides,” said Vidovic, who clarified that the word church meant the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Attendees at the Amsterdam celebration, sponsored by the European Baptist Federation, learned about other religious freedom challenges.
“Uzbekistan continues to impose enormous fines on people exercising their freedom of religion or belief. In total, 33 people are known to have each been fined up to 100 times the minimum monthly salary in April and May,” read a prayer card distributed to participants. “Official hostility continues towards religious literature, in one case literature was ordered to be destroyed after an ‘expert analysis’ from the state Religious Affairs Committee stated that religious books can ‘only’ be used within the confines of registered religious communities.”
While some EBF member unions or conventions face religious discrimination by the hand of other official state religions — both Christian and Muslim — other bodies see a new period of interfaith engagement.
Nabeeh Abbassi, a first-generation Baptist in his family and the past president of the Baptist Union of Jordan, said he saw a new era of dialogue emerging between Christians and Muslims.
Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Baptist Society, recalled that during the 2006 summer war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah that Baptists sheltered and fed 850 displaced Shiite Muslims at the Beirut Baptist School, as well as 100 Christians and Muslims at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.
“A representative of the Shiite community seeking shelter on our seminary campus told us, ‘You have preached to us not in words, but through your lives,'” said Costa. “It is no longer ‘them’ and ‘us.'”
In the event’s closing session, David Coffey, president of the Baptist World Alliance, called the Baptist message “subversive” when he referred to one of the early founders, a man named Thomas Helwys, who advocated for religious freedom.
“The heart of the Amsterdam message that we’ve heard historically … is this: know the limits of an earthly ruler … Nothing romantic about looking at Thomas Helwys as he sat … in the New Gate prison, saying ‘My Lord the king is but an earthly king,'” said Coffey. “That is what is being said here … This is our subversive story and this is our countercultural song. Every human ruler without exception has to bow to King Jesus. And some have laid down their lives for that principle.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.