Less than a month after police in the former Soviet state of Georgia intervened to rescue peaceful gay-rights protestors from a religious mob, Baptist young adults from the United States stood alongside Georgian Baptists to speak up for Muslims denied the right to Friday prayers two weeks in a row.
“Imagine if someone told you that you weren’t allowed to go to church and pray,” Torie Zeiner, one of three young adults led overseas by American Baptist missionary Dan Buttry, wrote on the American Baptist Churches USA International Ministries website.
“Imagine if the government told you that they had it under control, but their version of under control was to hold your prayer leader in the police office for a few hours conveniently during the time of prayer.
“Imagine you are a minority religion and are afraid of what may happen if you take a stand. Imagine your prayer leader getting beaten. If you are imagining these things, you are putting yourself in the shoes of some of the Muslims in the Republic of Georgia, specifically in Eastern Georgia.”
Zeiner, a student at Baptist-affiliated Franklin College in Indiana, said in an interview at the recent ABC/USA Mission Summit in Overland Park, Kan., she has been involved in interfaith work on campus. So she already knew about false stereotypes people attach to Muslims, but standing with them arm-in-arm amid difficulty made the message even stronger, she added.
“Getting to know them as people — that’s so important for everybody,” she said.
The right-to-pray demonstration unfolded on what was probably the hottest day of the month-long IGNITE mission trip, Zeiner said. Started with a mission trip to Haiti in 2012, IGNITE is billed as the next generation of Xtreme Team, a program that ran from 1998 until 2010, geared to connect young adults with global missions.
“It’s one of the most exciting things that I’ve done as a missionary,” said Buttry, International Ministries’ global consultant for peace and refuge.
The trip, planned in conjunction with the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, included typical overseas mission trip activities like visiting the elderly and churches, working in feeding programs for children, giving food to beggars on the street and even meeting with an unreached people group, Buttry noted.
The most memorable event, however, came when Georgian Baptists played a leading role in an interfaith right-to-pray rally protesting intolerance by radical Orthodox Christians toward local Muslims.
“Today, I was extremely proud to be a Baptist,” Zeiner wrote reflecting on the demonstration. “The leaders of the Georgian Baptist churches have been such a great example for me. They stand up for the injustices that others are afraid to.”
Though themselves a small minority, Buttry said, Baptists in Georgia are known for standing bravely for religious liberty for all.
After an estimated 40,000 anti-gay protestors, reportedly inspired by leadership of the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate, attacked several dozen LGBT activists attempting to hold a 30-minute-long silent protest on May 17, Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songhulashvili released a widely distributed statement condemning “irrational fear and hatred.”
“On May 17th I saw Christianity turned upside down,” Songhulashvili wrote in a statement translated from Georgian. “We were confronted with a horrific reality: Christianity completely stripped, devoid of love; as if the whole of our Christianity, religion, and spirituality — whatever you want to call it — had been paper-thin.”
The lesson learned by young people in Georgia is instructive for Baptists in the United States, said Ruth Clark, president of American Baptist Churches USA.
“We can’t say we want religious liberty and then make it exclusively ours,” Clark said. “Religious liberty needs to extend to everybody.
“I know it was a difficult situation for that team to be in the middle of those protests and to find that there were doors locked to houses of worship, that they could not enter, and to understand what it’s like to be on the other side of that.
“I suspect that’s something that will live in those young people for a very, very long time, and they will be among the forefront of those who say religious liberty is something that needs to be available to everyone, whether they agree with us down the line or not. That should be the way it is, and we are grateful to have that in the United States.”