Baptists from nearly 50 nations focused on religious liberty concerns in multiple nations during the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Bangkok, Thailand, the first week of July.
Through resolutions, presentations and advocacy, the historic Baptist concern for religious liberty led to attention given to Iraq, Myanmar, Russia, Thailand, the United States and elsewhere.
The BWA’s general assembly passed two resolutions focused on religious liberty concerns.
Three other resolutions passed dealt with slavery and human trafficking, refugees in East Africa and the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
A resolution on religious freedom in Russia expressed “great concern” about “recent legislation that restricts evangelism and missionary work by minority faiths.”
The resolution noted that Baptists and other Christians “have been arrested and fined during the past year due to the new laws curtailing religious liberty.” However, the resolution especially noted the targeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses and called on officials “to restore the religious rights of all people.”
The BWA also praised “the response of the Russian Baptist Union for standing for the principle of religious freedom for everyone, even for those with whom they have deep differences, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Russian Baptist leaders have publicly criticized the criminalization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, even expressing these concerns to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In another resolution, the BWA offered its disagreement with U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban on individuals from six predominately Muslim nations, noting the executive order has “raised serious concerns about religious freedom.”
The BWA argued in the resolution that no law should be used to discriminate on the basis of religion. The resolution urges the U.S. government to “to affirm its historic commitment to religious freedom for all people” and calls on Baptists in the U.S. “to stand firm for cherished Baptist principles of religious liberty.”
An even more significant vote during the meeting also showed religious liberty remains a BWA priority as members of the general council elected a new general secretary – Elijah Brown – to lead the organization starting Jan. 1.
Brown currently serves as executive vice president of 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a Christian human rights organization based in Virginia.
He described his calling as, in part, building up “Christ-centered witnesses within the public square, especially in areas of conflict, persecution, refugee marginalization and injustice.”
John Upton, former BWA president and chair of the search committee, echoed that sentiment as he described Brown as one who “values human rights, is a champion of religious freedom.”
That focus will set Brown in the tradition of former BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz.
The BWA remembers Lotz and his wife by presenting the Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award during the annual gatherings.
This year’s recipient, Cynthia Maung, is a Karen refugee from Myanmar who has lived in Thailand for three decades. A medical doctor, Maung established a clinic to serve other refugees.
The association of churches that Maung participates in – Kawthloolei Karen Baptist Churches – led worship for the BWA one morning and a minister in the camp, Saw Waldo, spoke in multiple sessions. The association is of churches in the refugee camps in Thailand for Karen refugees from Myanmar.
Through Waldo’s messages, songs of lament by a choir and creative arts presentations, the Karen refugees living in camps in Thailand explained the denial of protection and legal rights – including religious liberty rights – that they have experienced on both sides of the Myanmar-Thailand border.
Worship times included prayers for the refugees and other Baptists in the southeast Asia region suffering from religious persecution. Another session focused on religious liberty concerns for Baptists in Iraq.
One of Waldo’s presentations came in a session with the North American Baptist Fellowship, one of six regional BWA groups.
Waldo noted that “basic human rights and religious freedom” are restricted for his people. He said refugees particularly need people to help them understand their rights and help provide education.
“Basic rights are violated,” he explained. “Refugees are the most vulnerable people in the world.”
Two U.S. State Department members based in Thailand accepted an invitation to come hear his presentation and the session ended with NABF individuals from the U.S. each writing a letter to their U.S. representative urging more attention and support for Karen refugees in Thailand.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.