- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 1999

First it was the Jews. Then it was the Hindus.
Now it’s the Muslims who are being targeted for evangelism by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, America’s 15.6 million Southern Baptists.
The Baptists’ evangelistic prayer booklet is out just in time for the annual Islamic 30-day Ramadan fast, which begins either today or tomorrow depending on when the crescent moon appears.
The Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s annual “Prayer for Muslims” booklet, “Ramadan: Fasting and Seeking God,” has rated barely a yawn from Islamic groups since Baptists began issuing it five years ago.
With 9,000 missionaries in this country and abroad, the Southern Baptists have been known for their aggressive evangelism ever since the denomination’s founding in 1845. But this year, evangelism of any sort has taken a hit.
When the Baptists announced they will send 100,000 missionaries to Chicago next summer, a coalition of the city’s religious leaders, including Catholic Cardinal Francis George, protested.
The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago shot off an alarmed letter to the Rev. Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, asking him to desist.
Missionaries, said the letter, which was released simultaneously to the media, “could disrupt the pattern of peaceful interfaith relations in our community and unwittingly abet the designs of those who seek to provoke hate crimes by fomenting faith-based prejudice.”
The Nov. 27 letter suggested the Baptists do service projects instead of evangelism, adding, “A campaign of the nature and scope you envision could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes.”
Caught off guard by the publication of the letter in Chicago newspapers, the Southern Baptists responded that their main intention was to evangelize beyond their strongholds in the South.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” said SBC spokesman Bill Merrell, “how telling people about God is called hate speech.’ “
Mr. Patterson’s terse response, dated Nov. 29, blasted the council for trying to “intimidate rather than negotiate and to achieve the advantage of a pre-emptive strike.”
He added, “If there is violence or hate crimes,’ such will not be perpetrated by Southern Baptists or in any way engendered by our compassionate message. To the contrary, we are much more likely to be the targets of such attacks.
“Furthermore, letters like the one that you wrote to the press, under the guise of writing to me, are more likely the stuff from which hate crimes emerge.”
Two months before, Jewish groups nationwide had taken great umbrage at a “Days of Awe” prayer booklet, issued just before their high holy days Sept. 11-20. They did not respond favorably to the guide, even though the booklet seemed to go out of its way to explain Christianity’s “uneven” track record in evangelizing Jews and instructed Baptists to “avoid any hint of superiority” in sharing the Gospel. In case readers didn’t get that message, the cover photo was from Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial.
“I wish to remind Rev. Patterson that Jews don’t like being targeted that way, and for good reason,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. “Our history is rife with well-intentioned, supposedly loving’ efforts at targeted proselytizing by Christians who later turned to savage persecution and even pogroms when it became apparent we would not willingly abandon the faith of our fathers.”
As for the Chicago effort, the Baptists, he predicted, won’t be able to get 10,000, much less 100,000 missionaries to come to the city next summer. Whoever does come, he said, “will be completely ineffective.”
What also irritated Jewish leaders was Mr. Patterson’s attendance at a New York conference aimed at evangelizing Jews. The September gathering included Messianic Jews, who believe they can still remain Jews if they believe Jesus is their Messiah.
On Nov. 8, the heads of the four major Jewish theological seminaries, along with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, wrote Mr. Patterson, asking him not to support those who use “deceptive” tactics to convert Jews.
By then, the International Missions Board had already mailed out prayer guides aimed at Hindus. Called “Divali: Festival of Lights,” the guides were designed to be used Oct. 21-Nov. 14, during the annual Hindu festival.
Some Hindu organizations got offended at its opening paragraph, which describes how more than 900 million people “are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.” One Hindu group even protested outside a Southern Baptist church in Houston one Sunday morning.
Not to be deterred, the SBC was preparing 30,000 copies of its Muslim prayer guide, with a photo of two minarets on its cover. The booklet splits the world’s nearly 1 billion Muslims into various ethnic groups: the Jaaliyin of Sudan, the Berbers of Morocco, the Uighur and Dongxiang in western China, the Fulani of west Africa, as well as North America’s 5.5 million Muslims.
Daily entries describe each group, ask the reader to “reach out to their Muslim neighbors in love” and list several Arabic terms.
Although the booklets were only intended to be used in-house among 30,000 Southern Baptist “prayer partners,” they’ve now become a political statement, says Louis Moore, spokesman for the International Mission Board in Richmond.
“They’ve been depicted as some kind of manifesto,” he said, “as some kind of way of telling people to go door to door. But they’re addressed to Southern Baptists, as a way of acquainting our people with these different groups so as to pray for them.”
Baptists and other Christian groups, such as Youth With A Mission have been issuing prayer guides on non-Christian religions for years, especially those in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran where missionaries are not allowed.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American Islamic Relations says Muslims do not consider the booklets a threat.
“These kinds of books are designed for the missionaries, not for their targets,” he said. “In general, we don’t have a problem with people trying to spread information about their particular faith. We believe we have the Ferrari of faiths, so we’re not concerned about these efforts.
“There’s a whole publishing industry trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. We would like Muslims to have the opportunity to go door to door as well. We just don’t like it when deception is used.”
And coming up: A booklet to target America’s 2 million Buddhists. It will be published next spring, around the time of a triple celebration in May of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
“I guess it’s a sign of Buddhism’s increasing popularity if it’s getting singled out,” said Bill Aiken, national spokesman for Soka Gokkai International, one of the more prominent denominations among Buddhism’s 84,000 different schools.
And, “I appreciate the prayers,” he added.

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