Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, have asked President Obama to "do everything within the authority of your office" to free the American missionary team charged with abduction in Haiti.
In a letter dated Feb. 5, the leaders said it is "the consuming passion" of Southern Baptists to share the good news with the world and to "love every person He has created." This characteristic is especially apparent during times of disaster when Southern Baptists work alongside other humanitarian groups to meet the physical and spiritual needs of people.
Though the leaders admit they do not know all the facts in the case of the detained missionaries, they say it is their understanding that the volunteers were trying to transport 33 Haitian children across the border for humanitarian purposes.
"[W]e are concerned that the continued detainment and possible conviction of these Baptist mission volunteers will distract the world's attention and undermine the relief efforts so desperately needed by the Haitian people," the Baptist leaders said in a letter posted on Baptist Press, the news wire service affiliated with the SBC.
The Southern Baptist leaders who signed the letter are: Morris Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the SBC executive committee; Johnny Hunt, president of the SBC; and Frank Page, immediate past president of the SBC and member of President Obama's Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
A team of ten American Christians, mostly from two Idaho churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, was arrested last week while trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border to the Dominican Republic.
The team said it was bringing the children to an orphanage where they would be cared for. But the American volunteers lacked government permission to take the children out of the country, leading to concern of child trafficking.
A Haitian judge on Thursday charged the American Baptists with abduction and criminal association. The charges carry prison terms of up to 15 years. The case has been sent to an investigative judge.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday the case of the ten U.S. missionaries "is a matter for the Haitian judicial system." The U.S. government will provide support for the American citizens, she said, but will leave it to the "sovereign nation" to decide the outcome of the case.
"It is not our intent to interfere in the diplomatic negotiations currently under way between your administration and the Haitian government to resolve this matter," the Baptist leaders clarified in their letter. But they called on the president to consider the many Southern Baptists currently helping in Haiti "for the sole purpose" of helping the poor, hungry, and oppressed.
"It is possible that the Baptist mission volunteers currently detained in Haiti have acted with the noblest of intentions in a desperate situation to meet an immediate need," the Southern Baptist leaders said. "We pray that is the case."
They specifically asked Obama to secure medical treatment and spiritual counsel for the detained mission volunteers, arrange for a representative from the volunteers' churches or the SBC to visit them in Haiti, and secure the Americans' safe return home.
"It is our earnest desire and our steadfast prayer that God will use this moment in our nation's experience to raise greater awareness about the incredible need in Haiti," the Baptist leaders said. "[W]e assure you that this ordeal will only increase our resolve to provide lawful, generous, and compassionate ministry to the earthquake victims."
Fellow Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also called on Obama to secure the release of the Baptist volunteers.
The prominent Washington-based ethicist said the volunteers acted out of a "generous spirit" but lacked the knowledge on the appropriate process for taking children out of the country.
He highlighted that the Haitian government is receiving "massive assistance" from the United States, including millions of dollars from U.S. churches for relief efforts.
"For the Haitian government to respond in this way to the obvious good intentions of these honorable Christians is outrageous," Land asserted.
Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN this week that his government was open to the idea of transferring the case to a U.S. court. The request would have to be made by the U.S. government, but so far no such request has been made.