What does it mean to advocate for persecuted Christians? And does it work?

January 10, 2020 by Isaac Six in Advocacy

Perhaps one of the most common conversations I have with people outside of work is trying to explain what exactly it is I do for work. As it turns out, telling people “I advocate for persecuted religions minorities in Washington D.C.,” doesn’t provide much clarity for most. I shouldn’t be surprised. If someone had said the same thing to me about ten years ago or so, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have understood much of what it meant either.

 

So what is advocacy?

In its most basic form, advocacy is simply support for a certain cause or policy. You see a problem in the world, and you begin to advocate for ways to address the problem. These problems can appear to be simple, like the unjust imprisonment of an innocent person, or highly complex, like resolving a decade’s long violent conflict between multiple communities.

Sometimes the solution can be straightforward, like when you just need to convince one key decision-maker to make the right decision. Other times, you might have to build an alliance of like-minded organizations who try to influence a wide range of entities connected via complex networks in differing social strata to move in the right direction at the right time towards a multi-faceted solution to a problem that may be international in nature and could be evolving on a daily or hourly basis. And if you think that last sentence was painful to get through, just wait until you try to actually organize one of those really complex advocacy campaigns.

At this point, an example might be helpful. Here is one:

In 2014, Sudan imprisoned and sentenced to death Mariam Ibrahim, a Christian woman, for the alleged crime of apostasy. She was innocent, but her case might have gone unnoticed if not for an initial press report by the World Watch Monitor. Even then, few outlets picked up the news. A Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives read the report and reached out to an advocacy group for persecuted Christians. That group confirmed the information and helped draft a press release for the Congressman calling for the release of Mariam. At the same time, they worked with another advocacy group to launch a campaign for her release. The press release from the Congressman was picked up by a blogger for the New York Times and within days, an international campaign to pressure the Sudanese government to release Mariam had begun.

Mariam was eventually released and, along with her family, allowed to leave Sudan. If not for the advocates who raised the case, and worked for months to keep the campaign from being forgotten, Mariam may have languished in a Sudanese prison indefinitely, if not worse. In addition, the Sudanese government almost certainly became more reluctant to arrest and sentence others for apostasy in the future after the case of Mariam sparked international condemnation.

I love this example because it answers the next most common question about advocacy, which is, does it work? Yes, it does.

It also encapsulates what I love about advocacy, in that advocacy often addresses the problems that cannot be resolved in almost any other way. Barring sending in the “A-Team” to break Mariam out of prison (something that may have been considered by a few people) or a supernatural delivery (something that I certainly don’t deny the possibility of), the only way to secure Mariam’s release was to persuade those in power in Sudan to change course, and this had to be done through advocacy (and a healthy dose of prayer).

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This applies to so many other problems as well. You can, and should, provide encouragement and material support to those who suffer because of blasphemy laws or who are targeted by violent extremists. But how do you convince those in authority that allowing people to freely choose their faith is, in fact, in the best interest of their people and their nation? Or that a government should do more to protect the innocent from senseless murder? You do it through advocacy. The right advocacy at the right time can, ultimately, make a difference for millions.

This is where, however, an important caveat should be made. Advocacy is not always the right course of action, and even when it is, it does not always work. As you can imagine with anything that can be as complex as international advocacy, there are no guarantees or perfect formulas for success. It’s very important that advocacy work be well-crafted and strategic, but even the best-devised campaigns don’t always achieve the results you may be looking for.

This is where prayer and wisdom are critical. Advocacy can involve lengthy, complex work with government officials, the press, social influencers, faith-leaders, non-governmental organizations, and others. Knowing when and how to apply limited resources effectively is a considerable challenge. We must know when to speak and who to speak to, and when speaking might do more harm than good. We ask the Lord for guidance continually, and fully commit each effort into His hands, knowing that He is the ultimate deliverer and advocate.

I hope that this brief explanation sheds a bit of light on what advocacy is and why we undertake this work at Open Doors USA. In 2020, let’s be unwavering in our commitment to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” and to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Hebrews 13:3 & Proverbs 31:8).

For more information on our advocacy work, please visit our advocacy page here.


Isaac Six serves as director of advocacy for Open Doors USA and is based in Washington, D.C. He has worked on religious freedom issues and Christian persecution in Washington for over eight years, including inside and outside of government; and has traveled extensively to meet with victims of religious freedom violations around the globe.

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