Numbers Don't Reflect Baptists' Strength, Group Says

The new president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination says dwindling attendance at its annual convention is no indication of the denomination's strength.

"The direction of the Southern Baptist Convention , the focus of the Southern Baptist Convention is clear,'' the Rev. Jack Graham of Plano, Texas, said following his election Tuesday. "I believe it's a new day for Southern Baptists.''

The convention on Wednesday adopted resolutions supporting the state of Israel, praying for peace in the Middle East and calling on Palestinians "to reform their government structures to repudiate terrorism and tyranny.''

It also adopted a resolution concerning the Roman Catholic sex-abuse scandal, acknowledging "our own fallenness and the need to prevent such appalling sins from happening within our own ranks.''

The convention called on Southern Baptist churches to "discipline those guilty of any sexual abuse in obedience'' with Scripture "as well as to cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases.''

Gay-rights activists tried to disrupt outgoing President James Merritt's keynote speech on Tuesday, and 50 protesters were arrested. Among the protesters were a dozen from the group SoulForce, which claims Southern Baptist teachings lead to violence against gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

"Stop killing us,'' one man shouted as police dragged him behind the curtains at America's Center. "Stop the spiritual violence.''

"God loves his gay children,'' a woman shouted.

As the protesters filed onto the convention floor, Merritt took aim at the media and Hollywood _ groups he said nearly unanimously accept homosexuality.

"We now face the fact that there are certain groups that are going to protest us every year,'' he said. "They have let me know in their correspondence, 'We are not going away.' Well, I've got news for the pornographer, the adulterer, the homosexual, the pedophile, the abortionist. We are not going away either.''

Two convention delegates made motions Tuesday for the church to rescind an order for missionaries to affirm the Baptist Faith & Message, the denomination's chief doctrinal statement. The statement was amended two years ago to, among other things, prohibit women from serving and pastors and to direct wives to submit graciously to their husbands.

Some Baptists oppose the affirmation because they consider it a creed, which they say makes it contrary to Southern Baptist tradition. The motion to rescind the order was referred to a committee.

The Southern Baptists claim more than 16 million members. As of Tuesday, fewer than 9,500 delegates had registered for the two-day convention, down from a record of more than 45,000 set in 1985.

Online Producer Glenn Cummins