When global Baptists gather today in Amsterdam to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the beginnings of the Baptist movement in the back room of a city bakery, they will remember an early advocate for religious liberty and reflect on how they can remain champions of religious freedom.
At center stage will be Christer Daelander, who is both the international secretary for the Baptist Union of Sweden and the religious freedom representative of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), a regional arm of the Baptist World Alliance.
The sponsor of Amsterdam 400, EBF has more than 800,000 Baptist members in 51 unions or conventions from Portugal to Russia as well as member bodies in the Middle East and a church in Turkey.
Over the past two years, much of EBF’s religious freedom focus has been on Azerbaijan, where two Baptist pastors — Zaur Balaev and Hamid Shabanov — were arrested in 2007 and 2008, respectively, on what many Baptists considered trumped-up charges.
In addition to meeting with the Azerbaijan ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna to appeal the arrest of Balaev, Daelander was part of a Baptist monitoring group in January to Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku, which met with governmental and religious leaders.
“We wanted the authorities to realize that the Baptists are not a sect, but a worldwide movement of millions of believers working for the good and for the positive development of the state,” Daelander told EthicsDaily.com.
Since the visit of the monitoring group, Azerbaijani Baptists have not experienced “grave” violations of their religious freedom, said Daelander.
However, he pointed out that the government did adopt in July a new religion law, which disallows religious groups from practicing their faith outside of approved religious buildings.
Elsewhere in Europe, some secularists think the freedom of religion “means freedom from religion,” said Daelander, who served as a missionary with his wife in the Democratic Republic of Congo for some seven years. “We want to show that it is also very much a freedom to religion and the freedom to choose the religion you want.”
Noting the privileges extended to some dominant religions and oppression of some minority religious expressions by governments, Daelander said, “[I]t is important in our work within EBF to relate to these dominant religions and to make them understand the importance of religious freedom for all, without religious obligations imposed by the state or the dominant religion.”
Daelander said religious freedom is “the freedom for individuals and groups of individuals to believe, to confess and to propagate their faith and belief and to organize themselves…They should also be free to choose their own leaders and be free to nourish international relations. It is also the freedom of not believing or not belonging to any specific religious grouping.”
The Swedish Baptist leader said that he considered religious freedom as “an important part of human rights.” But he noted that many nations, including Sweden, subordinate religious freedom to other rights.
The opening plenary session of the Amsterdam 400 gathering begins with a focus on religious freedom and Thomas Helwys, a co-founder of the Baptist tradition in 1609, who wrote a letter to King James I of England appealing for religious liberty, an appeal that landed him in prison where he later died.
Daelander later leads a seminar on religious liberty, which he hopes will lead to each EBF member body having a contact person for religious freedom.
“Together with other organizations we should develop a clear strategy for how to act in different situations and how to make campaigns effective,” he said.
Other plenary sessions focus on missions, community and discipleship.
Several hundred global Baptists are expected to attend the three-day meeting.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.