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Mennonite sects to vote on merging

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For two decades, the country's two largest Mennonite denominations have held joint meetings and talked of bringing together their 125,000 members into one church, a Mennonite Church USA.

On Thursday, about 10,000 members of the denominations plan to formally vote on merging the Mennonite Church based in Elkhart, Ind., and the General Conference Mennonite Church based in Newton, Kan.

The two churches, among nearly 20 Mennonite organizations in North America, have explored a possible merger since they began meeting jointly in 1983. In 1999, the delegates voiced support for reorganizing into a single group. Some membership issues that remained unresolved then were expected to be taken care of during the weeklong meeting underway in Nashville.

A spokeswoman for the Mennonite Church USA, said the union was expected to succeed.

The denominations have already merged in Canada into the Mennonite Church Canada.

Church leaders said the new denomination in the United States would help unify the churches' efforts on mission work and political issues, such as fighting capital punishment and supporting human rights.

Mennonites are known for their strong commitment to peace, and many decline to participate in the military. Their lifestyle and religious practices stem from the same 16th century religious movement — called Anabaptism — as the Amish. But unlike many Amish, most Mennonites don't shun modern technology or live in tight communities.

Kathleen Flake, assistant professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University, said the merger will make the denominations stronger.

"It sounds like the old differences just don't matter anymore," she said. "Why bear the administrative burden and the schism which is a spiritual burden?"

On the Net:

Mennonite Church USA: www.mennonitechurchusa.org