"It is the nature of some religious denominations that propagation of their faith is obligatory," Mahatir said in a speech. "But we should be careful that we don't propagate religions at the cost of conflicts and violence. Such conflicts can only bring about an environment where religions cannot survive. We must be careful when undertaking matters involving religion. The sensitivity of others of different religious perceptions must be given due considerations."
Mahatir presented his remarks at the 11th General Assembly of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) in the Malaysian capital in early May and received a standing ovation from the 600 Christian leaders present from 82 nations. Malaysian delegates, noting that Christianity is a minority in the developed island nation of 21 million people, said it was a rare privilege to be welcomed by the prime minister.
Prince Guneratnam, director of the Assemblies of God fellowship of Malaysia, said Mahatir's presence gives Christians credibility and "a better standing with government when we need to negotiate and get government approval; this has given encouragement to the churches and made them stronger and bolder."
In his speech, Mahatir noted that once interreligious strife begins, violence can continue for generations. "Today we see such intractable interreligious wars in Northern Ireland, between Jews and Muslims and Christians in Palestine, Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, and in many other places," he said. "Attempts to bring about peace have failed again and again. Always the extremist elements invoking past injustices, imagined or real, will succeed in torpedoing the peace efforts and bringing about another bout of hostility."
Domestic Abuse Condemned
The WEF's Commission on Women's Concerns drafted a statement, passed unanimously by the delegates, putting a spotlight on domestic abuse among Christians. The WEF calls upon the church to denounce abuse from the pulpit, to protect and provide for those in need of safety, to offer healing for victims, and to admonish offenders.
The statement follows a report just published by the women's commission, which has revealed that incidents of violence against women are nearly as common in church circles as in wider society.
"We are very aware that our Christian leaders are abusing their wives and abusing women," said Winnie Bartel, chairwoman of the commission. Nancy Nason-Clark, coauthor of the new book No Place for Abuse (InterVarsity), said the report was "a wake-up call to the evangelical church to realize that violence is a problem in our communities."
During its meeting at Vancouver in 1997, the WEF launched a 19-member task force on violence against women. The Washington, d.c.-based Helsinki Commission has expressed interest in the report, the WEF says, especially as governments increasingly look to faith-based communities for answers to social problems.
Director Steps Down
The WEF enters the new millennium without an international director. Jun Vencer, who held the post for nine years, announced his retirement two years ago. Because a successor has not yet been found, an international council of directors will run WEF for at least the next year.
Vencer says he is disappointed. "As a true evangelical, I rest my case before God," Vencer said. "In his providence, he has wisdom I don't understand."
To reflect the more active and engaged stance that it plans to have, the organization announced a name change effective next year, the World Evangelical Alliance.
In other business, delegates called on leaders of the world's most industrialized nations to cancel the unpayable debt of impoverished nations.
"Despite the partial success of the Jubilee 2000, we still have a situation where more money is flowing out of poor countries in debt repayments than is given in aid," said Stephen Rand, prayer and campaigns director of Tearfund, a relief and development agency based in the United Kingdom. "There are countries spending more on repaying debt than on health and education."
Malaysian Christians raised nearly $120,000, a major portion of the budget, to host the conference and subsidize the costs borne by delegates, especially those from poor countries. The WEF General Assembly meets every four years.
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The World Evangelical Fellowship site offers news releases about the General Assembly and more information about the organization.
The WEF General Assembly site is mainly for those attending the meeting, and offers the program schedule, biographical sketches of the speakers, and information about Malaysia.
Malaysia's The Star newspaper has also been covering the General Assembly. Its articles include:
Leaders urged to help poor nations (May 10, 2001)
Help abused women, church leaders urged (May 8, 2001)
'Propagate religions carefully' (May 5, 2001)
Crosswalk.com's ReligionToday also has a report on WEF's General Assembly.
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