Valley Forge, Pa. -- In letters sent within the past week, American Baptist Churches USA leaders have expressed appreciation to Eduarde Shevardnadze, president of the Republic of Georgia, for his outspoken commitment to religious freedom in that country.
Shevardnadze joined hundreds of worshipers at the Cathedral Baptist Church in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, on March 14 for an ecumenical service that celebrated unity in defiance of recent actions by religious extremists. Shevardnadze spoke at the service, attended by numerous Christian and state dignitaries from across Europe.
A mob led by defrocked ultrafundamentalist Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili had disrupted a previous attempt to hold such a service in January, smashing windows and beating some participants.
In their letter sent March 29, President David G. Hunt and General Secretary the Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley noted: "...We thank you for your courageous stance for religious freedom and your personal commitment as President of the Republic of Georgia 'to recognize and at the same time protect our common faith and common citizenship.' Baptists around the world receive these words with deep gratitude. We have long prayed for the right of our brothers and sisters in Georgia to worship and serve Christ in freedom according to the dictates of their conscience.
"Over the past several years we have received with great sadness and apprehension reports of acts of lawless oppression by a few against our beloved brothers and sisters in Georgia. We were especially saddened as we recently viewed pictures of Bibles being burned by fellow Christians simply because they were owned by Baptists. Your expression of sorrow and anger at 'the fact that our unity, mutual respect, and liberty of faith have been violated by some aggressors,' was a powerful statement when coupled with your promise as President to 'safeguard full freedom for the individual to express his or her faith.' Surely this will stand in the decades to come as a defining moment in the life of your country.
"As American Baptists we have been in the forefront of both the world and U.S. ecumenical movements because we are compelled by our Lord Jesus to seek the unity of his body. We rejoice that, in the face of religious strife, representatives of many Christian traditions came together on March 14 in a demonstration of the unity which we share in Christ Jesus..."
In a letter sent to Shevardnadze March 31, International Ministries Executive Director the Rev. Dr. John A. Sundquist noted: "It is with great joy that I read of your participation in the recent ecumenical service...in Tibilisi. I commend you for taking this initiative and for your excellent leadership in seeking to bring reconciliation and peace within your great nation."
Sundquist, who also is a vice president of the Baptist World Alliance, added: "Your statement at the ecumenical service was impressive not only for your unequivocal call to pray and work for peace across all divisions which tend to separate humankind, but for your unashamed witness as a believer to our common faith as Christians...."
By Albert H. Lee