First it was the Jews. Then it was the Hindus.
Now it's the Muslims who are being targeted for evangelism by the nation's largest Protestant denomination, America's 15.6 million Southern Baptists.
The Baptists' evangelistic prayer booklet is out just in time for the annual Islamic 30-day Ramadan fast, which begins either today or tomorrow depending on when the crescent moon appears.
The Southern Baptist International Mission Board's annual "Prayer for Muslims" booklet, "Ramadan: Fasting and Seeking God," has rated barely a yawn from Islamic groups since Baptists began issuing it five years ago.
With 9,000 missionaries in this country and abroad, the Southern Baptists have been known for their aggressive evangelism ever since the denomination's founding in 1845. But this year, evangelism of any sort has taken a hit.
When the Baptists announced they will send 100,000 missionaries to Chicago next summer, a coalition of the city's religious leaders, including Catholic Cardinal Francis George, protested.
The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago shot off an alarmed letter to the Rev. Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, asking him to desist.
Missionaries, said the letter, which was released simultaneously to the media, "could disrupt the pattern of peaceful interfaith relations in our community and unwittingly abet the designs of those who seek to provoke hate crimes by fomenting faith-based prejudice."
The Nov. 27 letter suggested the Baptists do service projects instead of evangelism, adding, "A campaign of the nature and scope you envision could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes."
Caught off guard by the publication of the letter in Chicago newspapers, the Southern Baptists responded that their main intention was to evangelize beyond their strongholds in the South.
"It's amazing, isn't it," said SBC spokesman Bill Merrell, "how telling people about God is called `hate speech.' "
Mr. Patterson's terse response, dated Nov. 29, blasted the council for trying to "intimidate rather than negotiate and to achieve the advantage of a pre-emptive strike."
He added, "If there is violence or `hate crimes,' such will not be perpetrated by Southern Baptists or in any way engendered by our compassionate message. To the contrary, we are much more likely to be the targets of such attacks.
"Furthermore, letters like the one that you wrote to the press, under the guise of writing to me, are more likely the stuff from which hate crimes emerge."
Two months before, Jewish groups nationwide had taken great umbrage at a "Days of Awe" prayer booklet, issued just before their high holy days Sept. 11-20. They did not respond favorably to the guide, even though the booklet seemed to go out of its way to explain Christianity's "uneven" track record in evangelizing Jews and instructed Baptists to "avoid any hint of superiority" in sharing the Gospel. In case readers didn't get that message, the cover photo was from Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial.
"I wish to remind Rev. Patterson that Jews don't like being targeted that way, and for good reason," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. "Our history is rife with well-intentioned, supposedly `loving' efforts at targeted proselytizing by Christians who later turned to savage persecution and even pogroms when it became apparent we would not willingly abandon the faith of our …