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Christian effect still possible during religious freedom crisis, speakers say

by Tom Strode

ERLC's webinar "Baptists & the Nations: Religious Freedom Challenges Around the Globe" included panelists (clockwise from top left) Brent Leatherwood, Todd Lafferty, Chelsea Sobolik and Paul Miller.

NASHVILLE, TN (BP) – Christians are not without means of effective ministry while religious freedom is under siege in countries such as Afghanistan and China, speakers said Thursday (Aug. 26) in a Southern Baptist-sponsored online conversation.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) brought together specialists in missions, international relations and religious freedom in a webinar titled “Baptists & the Nations: Religious Freedom Challenges Around the Globe.” Video of the event is available here.

The discussion took place only hours after terrorist bombs killed 13 American troops and at least 90 Afghans outside the Kabul airport, where a massive evacuation effort is under way following the Taliban takeover of the country. The extremist Islamic group reportedly is already targeting Christians and other religious minorities, as well as Afghans who aided the United States the last 20 years.

“This has been one of the greatest setbacks for international religious freedom that we’ve lived through,” Paul Miller told the webinar audience. The Taliban “will not respect religious freedom or any human rights,” said Miller, professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the White House National Security Council.

Todd Lafferty, executive vice president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB), said, “There are posters of believers now across the city of Kabul, and we know that [the Taliban is] going after them.” In addition, young daughters of Afghan Christians have already been taken from their families and given to Taliban fighters, he said.

IMB is “doing everything” it can “to try to help facilitate getting people out of the country,” Lafferty said. “We hope and pray that our government on the ground will help facilitate that as well.”

Chelsea Sobolik, the ERLC’s acting director of public policy, said the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities “will continue to increase as the United States falls back.” The Taliban’s treatment of women and girls also is “deeply, deeply concerning,” she said.

In response, IMB is working to help with the refugee crisis caused by the Taliban’s takeover, Lafferty told participants in the webinar.

“[T]here is a great opportunity for the church to rise up and minister and serve” during these crises, he said. “This gives us an opportunity as the church to reach the nations that have come among us.

“So we need to pray that Christians here would receive them with open arms and see this as God’s appointed time … where we actually have an opportunity to minister to people that we would never be able to touch because they are behind closed borders and hard-to-reach places.”

Southern Baptists have given generously recently through Send Relief to help Afghan refugees, Lafferty said. Send Relief is the SBC’s compassion ministry conducted through the cooperative effort of IMB and the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Send Relief has seen “a strong, continuous and generous giving response from hundreds of churches and individuals in a matter of days,” a NAMB spokesman told Baptist Press.

Sobolik told the audience, “[I]t can be tempting when we see these images and videos to feel utterly, utterly helpless, but we’re not. As Christians, we can get on our knees and pray on behalf of vulnerable people in Afghanistan and around the world who are facing persecution.”

Christians also can pray “that people would share the Gospel” with the persecutors, in this case the Taliban, and “that they would come to know Christ as their Savior as well.”

It is “appropriate to focus on the immediate need” by seeking to help through IMB and other charitable organizations or to aid in resettling refugees, Miller said.

In addition to meeting immediate needs, Christians should focus beyond the headlines, he said. “There are a lot of other emerging and important issues that may not feel like today’s crisis and yet they are deeply concerning, deeply worrying,” including the rise of China as a world power, Miller told the audience.

China has exercised oppressive practices against Christians and other religious groups for decades, but it has turned its attention in recent years toward Uyghur Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang. The United States has declared the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign against the Uyghurs as genocide. The CCP’s policies have included detention in “re-education” camps, forced labor, coercive organ harvesting, and forced abortions and sterilizations.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that the way a government treats its people reveals its character,” Miller said in reference to China. “And that character will eventually also be revealed in how it treats other nations.”

When the CCP treats the Uyghurs and other groups “as disposable without any rights or dignity, you can bet that sooner or later the Chinese government will also take that same attitude and apply it to its neighboring countries,” he said.

Regarding the human rights/religious freedom crisis in Xinjiang, Sobolik said, “Christians should be on the forefront of advocating for dignity and human rights of all people, and we cannot remain silent in the face of injustices.”

Lafferty told the audience, “[P]rayer is one of the biggest ways that we can continue to impact the Chinese government, the Chinese world at this time. But I tell you what, it’s exciting what God is doing across that land. That work is not stopping. The Chinese believers want to see their group grow by 10 fold in the middle of this persecution. They know that it’s coming.”

Other countries that are not drawing as much attention but raise concerns about religious freedom and human rights, speakers said, including Belarus, Cuba, India, Nigeria and, as Miller described them in a follow-up email, “countries in which populism and nationalism hold sway, like Hungary, Poland and Brazil.”

During the webinar, speakers also addressed inter-country adoption, guidance for missionary personnel during crises and the Great Commission’s effect on their work. Brent Leatherwood, the ERLC’s chief of staff, moderated the discussion.

Among the resources on the crisis in Afghanistan produced by the ERLC is a prayer guide, which is available here. The SBC Executive Committee partnered with Send Relief to issue a prayer guide Thursday on Afghanistan.



Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.



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