Jews troubled by Baptist push for converts

The latest evangelical thrust of the Southern Baptist Convention is drawing protest from Jews, who see Baptist prayers for their conversion as a disrespect for religious differences.

On the eve of the Days of Awe - from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the 10 holiest days of the Jewish faith - the Southern Baptist Convention urged its members to pray throughout the holidays for the conversion of Jews.

To make the prayers more effective, it issued a prayer guide recommending that for each day members focus on the Jewish population of a given country and cover specific themes in their "intentional prayer." It called on members "to pray each day for Jewish individuals name."

The convention's International Prayer Strategy Office says they intend to do the same for Muslims during Ramadan, for Hindus during Divali, the Festival of Lights, and for Buddhists.

The Southern Baptist action supports an end-of-millennium push by evangelicals to try to reach all peoples of the world by the end of the year 2000.

To Jews, it is an outrage. "We are shocked and deeply offended by the call," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. It disregards the right of other people to be different in thought and beliefs, and to exercise that difference, he says. "It's an arrogance of spirit which is contrary to pluralism."

Baptists see it as an exercise of religious freedom and respectful of pluralism. "Baptists are staunch defenders of religious liberty. But this liberty does not mean that it is 'intolerant' or 'imperialistic' to tell others the Good News," says R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary (see 'spiritual mapping' page 15).

The initiative comes at a particularly sensitive time for American Jews, who, according to the National Jewish Outreach Program, face "a host of disturbing national trends" - a quickly growing rate of intermarriage, an extraordinarily low birth rate, and a sharp increase in the number of children being raised as non-Jews. The situation is so dire the NJOP calls it "the J2K problem."

"There are fewer Jews in the whole world (12-14 million) than there are Southern Baptists in the United States (16 million), says Martin Marty, head of The Public Religion Project. As for targeting Jews, he says, "You can get a clue from someone like Billy Graham. There's no way you can be an evangelist like him and not pray for the conversion of everybody...but a few years ago when he went to New York, he wrote to rabbis saying, 'I am not going to be targeting the Jews.' "

What particularly distresses Mr. Foxman is that ADL had been working with the Baptists to improve relations ever since they passed a 1996 resolution making Jewish conversion a priority. "This flies in the face of dialogue," he says. "We should be seeking to share and understand and respect one another. Why dialogue if the end result is that we have no value unless we become 'they'?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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