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Global Baptists Urged to Engage in Advocacy

Global Baptist speakers urged greater advocacy—especially for religious freedom—among churches and conventions at the local, national and international levels at the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) in Izmir, Turkey.
They described advocacy as an inherent part of their faith.

During a forum Thursday on religious liberty and human rights advocacy, five speakers offered examples of advocacy as they encouraged Baptists to participate wherever they can.

The speakers stressed that each level of advocacy—local, national and international—is needed because they are connected and no single level contains all the solutions.

“One of these pieces out of place means that the others are not effective, and it takes all three levels,” said Shane McNary, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) field personnel in Slovakia.

McNary told of attending two sessions on religious freedom issues at United Nations sessions in Geneva. McNary attended to represent CBF and BWA and report back on the deliberations.

“Be proactive,” he urged those present, as he offered suggestions he gleaned from the U.N. meetings. “Advocacy is about relationship.”

For each of the speakers during the forum, the advocacy efforts were built on their faith and calling as Christians.

Raimundo Baretto, who serves as director of the BWA’s Division on Freedom and Justice, explained he prefers the phrase “public witness” over “advocacy” or “activism.”

“Human rights advocacy is for Christians a form of Christian witness and discipleship,” explained Baretto, who is leaving the BWA next month to teach at Princeton University. “We do it as followers of Jesus Christ.”

“Public witness is an act of love and solidarity with those who suffer, an expression of the gospel,” he said. “We stand up for and with the oppressed for justice, for human dignity, for human rights or for a specific cause.”

Baretto suggested that some Baptists may need extra encouraging to get involved in advocacy.

“As Baptists, we have struggled a little bit with this demand for public witness in light of our understanding of the principle of separation of church and state,” he explained.

“We must not confuse separation of church and state with separation of church and society,” Baretto said. “One must not mistake the Baptist legacy of religious freedom or the strong defense of separation of church and state with a justification for no religion in the public sphere.”

“The Baptist vision for religious freedom goes beyond a simplistic view of separation of church and state to become an idea of resisting and redeeming the powers that be,” he said.

During the presentations, the speakers used examples from around the world, many of which they had witnessed firsthand.

The quick tour of religious freedom advocacy included stops in Azerbaijan, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Liberia, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, Sweden, Turkmenistan, United States and Uzbekistan.

Christer Daelander, coordinator for Human Rights in the Uniting Church in Sweden and religious freedom representative of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), explained how he and others in the EBF and BWA work with local Baptists struggling for more religious freedoms.

Part of this work is providing training sessions so Baptists can learn how to advocate for their religious freedom rights at various levels, including in the European Council, the European Union and the United Nations.

Daelander noted that 75 percent of the world’s population does not have full religious freedom rights.

Baptist leaders from many countries with religious freedom restrictions were in the room for the forum.

“Human rights and freedom of religion for all, that’s a key guiding principle for us,” Daelander said.

The BWA’s Commission on Religious Freedom, which is a part of the Division of Freedom and Justice, practices this mission as it seeks to organize on behalf of those whose religious freedom rights are violated.

Elijah Brown, an assistant professor of missions at East Texas Baptist University and a member of the commission, spoke during the forum on the commission’s work over the past year to gather information about religious freedom restrictions in the African nation of Eritrea and then advocate internationally in hopes of changing the situation.

“It’s just this incredible story of how the global church should act,” Brown said as he recounted how the story moved from Eritrean refugees to Baptists in Texas to BWA leaders meeting in Jamaica to political leaders in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Brown, who authored a BWA report based on the commission’s fact-finding efforts, said more work is ongoing as the BWA advocates for religious freedoms in a nation that remains even more isolated than North Korea and does not include any Baptists.

Jan Saethre, a municipality administrator in Norway and a Norwegian Baptist leader, explained during the forum how he got his local church to engage in advocacy efforts at various levels.

“This is my encouragement: Do something very practical; it changes your life,” Saethre said. “It’s a lifestyle.”

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. He serves on the BWA’s communications advisory committee. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.