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— Meeting in one of the nation’s most heavily Hispanic states, the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday called for the creation of “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures” for illegal aliens living in the United States.

Convention delegates, known as messengers, debated whether to strip that language from a resolution titled “On Immigration and the Gospel,” which had been crafted by the Committee on Resolutions.

But attempts to delete the wording failed by a vote of 766-723.

The overall resolution then passed by a show of hands.

Two-fifths of Hispanic Southern Baptists in this country are here illegally, Baptist leaders estimated.

The resolution calls on Southern Baptist churches “to be the presence of Christ, in both proclamation and ministry, to all persons, regardless of country of origin or immigration status.”

Baptists also voted to “deplore any bigotry or harassment against any persons, regardless of their country of origin or legal status.”

Baptists added a clause stating that the resolution should not “be construed as amnesty.”

Richard Huff, a Southern Baptist messenger from Tucson, Ariz., moved to strike any call for a pathway to legal residency.

If illegal aliens are allowed to stay, “we will be rewarding people who have broken the law,” warned John Killian, a messenger and pastor from Maytown, Ala. Accepting millions of illegal aliens is “a policy that’s completely unsustainable for our economy.”

Others warned that the measure was misguided.

“This is amnesty any way you phrase it,” said Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif.

Paul Jiminez, chairman of the resolutions committee, defended the resolution.

“It is our desire that as churches see immigrants here among us, that our first question is not ‘What is their legal status?’ but the question, first and foremost, is ‘What is their Gospel status?’”

Jiminez, a pastor from Taylors, S.C., called the proposal, which also called for securing the nation’s borders, “a realistic and biblical approach to immigration.”

Former convention President Paige Patterson said he was “not surprised” by the vigorous debate.

“This is a very difficult issue for every Southern Baptist. ... We are torn as a people on this issue,” said Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“On the one hand, to us, an illegal immigrant is just another person that Christ loves and died for, and we feel enormous obligation to such people. On the other hand, we are notorious for believing in being law-abiding citizens andhaving a country of law. So anything that breaks the law of the land, unless it’s for an intensely moral issue of some kind, we’re going to be in opposition to it.”

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, said he backs a pathway to legal status for illegal aliens but knows the issue is contentious.

“I will tell you this, 40 percent of the Hispanic Southern Baptists in this country are undocumented,” Land said.

“They come here to work. We’re aggressively evangelistic. We evangelize them. They get saved,” Land said. “When we’re talking about undocumented people, we need to understand that a lot of them are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Jason Noel, pastor at Eastside Baptist Church in Paragould, said he supports a pathway to legal residency.

“I think that’s compassionate. I think that shows common sense. I think it’s a fair way to treat people,” Noel said.

Eric Moffett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pocahontas, backed the measure, calling it “a good chance for us to show our love for those who have come to our country.”

“Our first call as followers of Jesus is to help the helpless, to love the unloved and to be there for people in need,” he added.

The immigration resolution sparked the most debate Wednesday.

Other resolutions, supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, calling for “civil public discourse” and affirming “the reality of hell,” passed overwhelmingly.

A final resolution, denouncing a forthcoming edition of the New International Version of the Bible, which uses gender-neutral language in some instances, also passed.

Attendance at the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting was the lowest since World War II.

Front Section, Pages 4 on 06/16/2011

Print Headline: Baptists call for plan to make illegal aliens legal

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