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November 11, 1999


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Southern Baptists Unrepentant

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Sonia Chopra

Despite hundreds of protest letters sent out by Hindus across America, and two highly visible protests held in Atlanta and Houston at two Southern Baptist churches against a derogatory prayer book, the church leaders say there is nothing to apologize for.

The 16-page book released by the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board during the Diwali festival is meant to assist churches pray for Hindus who have "darkness in their hearts".

The booklet says that 900 million Hindus "are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism" and calls on Southern Baptists to "pray that the darkness and that the power of Satan will be broken".

It adds:

"Most Hindus do not have a concept of sin or of personal responsibility, nor do they have a concept of a creator God."

The publishers of the book had said a week ago they had not meant to offend Hindus.

"Once again, we did not intend to offend anyone. We are sorry if they found our way of expressing Jesus's love as offensive but we stand by our mission," said spokesperson Wendy Norvelle.

She was responding to questions in particular about the Houston protest in which Jews, who were offended by a booklet seeking their conversion, joined the Hindu protesters.

But the Jewish Prayer Book was far more mild compared to the tract on Hinduism.

Carrying signs reading "Religious Intolerance Is Un-American" and "There is no 'your God' or 'my God.' There is only one God. Be enlightened", a group of over 150 Houston-area Hindus and a handful of Jews picketed silently and peacefully in front of Houston's Second Baptist Church on November 7. Many similar protests are expected in other southern cities.

The protest was organized by the Hindus of Greater Houston.

The booklet enraged Hindus even more because it was released to coincide with Diwali.

Swami Dhrumil Kumar, a saint of the Vallabh Preeti Seva Samaj who is on a visit to various VPSS temples in the United States, said, "We must protest so our youth are not misled by such vicious lies."

"It is absurd," said Jewish protester Bernard Shapiro, director of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies. "This is middle ages-type stuff. I mean, in a country like America, we should be more tolerant."

Stanley Berly, another rally organizer, noted that "the Southern Baptist guidebook attempts to dehumanize Hindus as evil and foreign. Two million Hindu-Americans and all freedom-loving Americans, regardless of religion, must stop this cancer of hate from spreading."

"I am here to protest against religious intolerance; ignorance brings prejudice" said Shilpa Chunchu. The main thrust of the protesters was that religious intolerance in America cannot be left unanswered. As Abha Misra, one of the rally organizers, stated, "The foundation of religious freedom in America is the religious tolerance of the American people. In order to sustain this religious freedom, we must remain ever vigilant for the first sign of religious intolerance."

The purpose of the protest was not mere publicity. It was also to focus attention on the rise of religious intolerance among a major denomination and to correct the misunderstanding that exists about Hinduism in the face of these untruths, according to Amit Mishra, a young Houston attorney who spearheaded the planning and organization of the rally. He also stated that "there is nothing wrong in educating someone about your faith. But when there is an element of trickery or coercion involved, that is just not right; that is violence."

Norvelle said the protests, which have, in part centered on the language are based on ignorance of the Bible.

"The language is from the scriptures. When we talk of `darkness' we mean, that about anyone who has not embraced Christ, for they are in darkness," said Norvelle, adding that callers were placing orders for the prayer books at a steady pace.

The organization does not ask callers what religious denomination they belong to, so they have no idea if the protests have spurred curiosity about the booklet.

Pointing out that the Pope appealed to Hindu hardliners during a recent visit to India on the grounds of freedom of religion, Norvelle said the organization is not upset about the protests.

"We live in a nation where we have freedom of religion. We are saddened by the noise and the refusal of Hindus to embrace Christ, the eternal savior but we respectfully choose to continue preaching our gospel. We make no apologies," Norvelle said.

"That is our privilege. It is also theirs {the Hindus} to follow their religion."

The Houston Chronicle interviewed Gary Moore, spokesman of the 26,000-member Second Baptist Church, who said he had not seen the booklet but was aware of it.

He said Southern Baptists "are pretty much a people of the book, and by that I mean the Bible, of course." He said the Bible specifically states that Jesus Christ is "the way, the truth and the light," and it calls on Christians to reach out to others in spreading the word.

"Anytime you are dealing with folks as I would say outside the faith, you have to be careful of where they are coming from, what their traditions are, what their culture is, and all that sort of thing," he said, sounding far more conciliatory than Norvelle. "But there still comes that dividing line of what we view as the truth."

Reacting to charges that Christian missionaries like the Baptists convert poor Indians in many rural areas in their outreach program in India in exchange for food and other amenities of life, Norvelle said, "that was just wrong.

"Our religion does not permit us to sell the gospel. It is a free gift. We may offer the person a cold glass of water or a piece of bread but that has no strings attached," Norvelle said.

The eye of the media is on the booklet since its conception may have aggravated things, Norvelle said.

"This has attracted a lot of attention. Things often get distorted with too many interpretations. It's a simple message: follow Christ and be saved," Norvelle said.

The organization is open to the idea of a meeting with Hindu leaders.

"We would be delighted at the opportunity to have a discourse but I doubt that with such a difference in ideology, there can be any kind of compromise," Norvelle said.

A P Kamath contributed to the report.

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