(RNS) The Mennonite World Conference has elected its first woman president to lead the body of 1 million Anabaptist Christians around the world.

Nancy Heisey, an associate professor of biblical studies and church history at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., will assume leadership of the organization in 2003.

The Mennonite World Conference is a global network of churches with a shared history in the Anabaptist tradition, which traces its roots to the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists were more radical than other reformers, stressing adult baptism and seeking to adopt a New Testament lifestyle. They were persecuted by both Catholics and other Protestants.

Mennonites are the largest Anabaptist church; other branches include the Church of the Brethren and the Amish. More than half of all Mennonites are found in Africa, Asia and South America. There are about 355,000 members in the United States.

Heisey has worked with the Mennonite World Conference for 18 years, including three years as associate executive secretary. She was the administrator of the conference's Burkina Faso program and an administrator in the Africa department, according to the Mennonite Weekly Review, a church newspaper.

"The work of God is bigger than each of us," Heisey said after her election. "Each one of us is a part of that work. ... It's a task that none can do by ourselves, but we can all do together."

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