When Baptists from around the world meet together, I’ve learned one quick area of commonality comes in the belief in religious liberty. The recent annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Bangkok, Thailand, proved this as religious liberty issues dominated many sessions. 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.
I learned from Baptists in Thailand and neighboring Myanmar as they talked religious liberty and their ministry in predominately Buddhist nations. Two representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Thailand accepted an invitation to sit in one session to hear a pastor in refugee camps in Thailand (made up of Karen people from Myanmar) talk about the struggles of his people. If the Embassy people were even one-quarter as moved as I was by the presentation, they will surely do something to help our Baptist brothers and sisters who have lived in refugee camps for more than 30 years.
In addition to several sessions devoted to religious liberty concerns in multiple countries, the BWA also passed two resolutions that offer a global Baptist voice on the topic. One resolution on 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 criticism of 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. It urges the U.S. government “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.”
During the discussion on the U.S. resolution, I went to the microphone and successfully advocated for a stronger version of it. Even through that resolution primarily speaks out for the rights of Muslims, I argued that as “Baptists in the tradition of [Thomas] Helwys,” we needed to speak out. I added that “if we do not believe in religious liberty for all, then we do not believe in religious liberty at all.”
I am thankful for the witness of Baptists around the world and through the ages for speaking strongly in many different contexts about the importance of religious liberty for all. May we never lose sight of this defining conviction.