WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 (RNS) -- A fellowship of Messianic Jews has decided to end its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention.

The North American Messianic Association sent a letter Jan. 22 to SBC President James Merritt informing him of the decision.

James Austin, president of the group whose members believe Jesus is the Messiah while maintaining they remain Jews, said in a statement the move will help the group continue its efforts to create more congregations.

"It has been impossible for NAMA to obtain comfort and support within the convention, either at the local or national level," he said. "This is primarily due (to) scriptural and cultural differences."

Austin told Religion News Service that members of his group have been concerned about whether some Southern Baptist leaders are sensitive to racial and ethnic groups.

"There's a lot of people that want to be a part of us but they don't want to be a part of Southern Baptists," he said. "Southern Baptists, for some people, have a problem identifying with ethnic sensitivities."

Martin King, spokesman for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, said the Messianic fellowship was one of almost two dozen ethnic fellowships affiliated with the denomination.

"We're saddened that any group that we've been working with feels that we can't continue to work together," he said.

King said some Southern Baptist leaders were "not aware of the problem" and "hoped to be able to work it out if it's just a misunderstanding."

The group, which was known until three years ago as the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, has been linked to the Southern Baptist Convention for almost 11 years. It includes more than 100 congregations across the globe.

Mainstream Judaism says that accepting Jesus as the Messiah is tantamount to conversion to Christianity, whether that is done formally or not. At best say, Jewish leaders, one is an apostate Jew after accepting Jesus.

The issue has soured relations between the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Jewish community.

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