Religious Freedom Advocacy in 2021 – Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

When Kori Porter, CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), was a little girl, she used to sneak into the living room to watch TV when she was supposed to be sleeping.

“One of the shows was about Martin Luther King Jr. leading people to freedom,” she said. “The narrative was that King had solved racism, and I remember crying, because I thought, When I grow up, I won’t be able to fight for anything!

Porter wasn’t a Christian, but she prayed anyway, asking God for a cause she could give her life to.

CSW-USA CEO Kori Porter

Years later, Porter came to a saving faith in Jesus. She took classes at Reformed Theological Seminary in Mississippi, lived and worked with TGC Council member Kevin DeYoung in Michigan, then worked in campus ministry while earning a Master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

When she was asked to serve on the board at CSW, which advocates for persecuted Christians around the world, she jumped. “I called my mentor Beth Paul and said, ‘This is it.’ I have to use what God has formed in my heart in order to produce freedom for his people.”

The London-based CSW felt the same way about her. Two months ago, CSW-USA announced that Porter had been appointed its new CEO, signaling a shift toward both youth outreach and the strategically important U.S. government.

TGC sat down with Porter to ask how 2020 affected religious freedom around the world, if some strategies work better than others, and what gives her hope when she can’t stop the kidnappings, imprisonments, and killings.

How did 2020 affect religious freedom around the world?

It’s interesting, because you’d think the COVID-19 restrictions would’ve lessened the amount of religious persecution, since fewer religious groups were able to meet as frequently in person. But that was not what happened. The number of religious-freedom violations stayed steady or even went up in some places, as governments used the restrictions as a cloak for persecuting behavior.

However, I do think the church was able to be more innovative in finding ways to worship and assemble. It reminds me of the first-century Christians under Roman rule—when persecution comes, the Holy Spirit finds new, ingenious ways to move.

Which areas of the world are doing particularly poorly with religious-freedom abuses? Which areas do well? Is there any pattern we can discern there—what’s the tell on whether a country is going to do well or poorly in this area?

Unfortunately, most areas of the world are doing poorly. Religious-freedom violations are on the rise around the world—in much of Asia, across the Middle East and North Africa, in East and sub-Saharan Africa, and even in Europe and the Americas. Four out of five of people live in countries that restrict religious freedom.

Four out of five of people live in countries that restrict religious freedom.

Of course, the violations range in severity and types, but the religious freedom we have in the U.S. puts us in a small minority of the world’s population.

Countries with strong democratic institutions that have robust protections for minorities, a functioning justice system, and an educated population with a good understanding of basic human rights—both their own and those of others—are all signs that a country will tend to do better on religious freedom. In China, for example, as the government moves toward more authoritarianism, religious freedoms for both Christians and Uighur Muslims are disappearing.

It seems counterintuitive that atheist countries, such as China, would be so limiting of religious freedom. I would’ve thought they wouldn’t care. What is it about atheism that makes it hard on religious freedom?

It’s not so much atheism, specifically. Many one-party states or dictatorships are based around a model of control—social control, economic control. Theocracies like Iran are like this, too. The government fears that which is outside of its control.

Religious belief, by its very nature, is far outside the control of any government—what you believe is in your head, in your heart, your soul. A government can try to penetrate that with fear or indoctrination, but it can never truly control someone’s fundamental beliefs. Religious freedom is a direct threat to their whole system.

A government can try to penetrate that with fear or indoctrination, but it can never truly control someone’s fundamental beliefs.

You’re tracking religious-freedom abuses—and advocating against them—all over the world. Are there strategies you’ve found to be more effective than others?

We’ve found two things, prayer and advocacy, to always be the most effective.

Over the years, we have cultivated specialized research and advocacy officers for each part of the world, and we have worked hard to develop trusting relationships with the people on the ground. We can then develop tailored strategies for each country, or even for specific issues in each country. What works well for one country may not work at all for another.

For example, a country like Iran may not be very responsive to condemnation from the U.S. or Europe but will respond to discrete diplomatic pressure from a country it considers to be friendly. In one country, a very public campaign may be counterproductive to the people we are trying to help, while in another country it could help protect an individual under threat.

We put a lot of thought into how we develop strategies based on what we know about the government, the culture, the political realities, and what the people directly impacted are telling us. In every case, though, whatever we do is supported by prayer—sometimes quiet and confidential, sometimes public. I am currently fasting or praying every Friday for Leah Sharibu, an abducted Nigerian schoolgirl who remains enslaved by terrorists because she refuses to convert to Islam.

I’m learning how much you have to be purposeful in your spiritual disciplines to do this work. You have to be disciplined before the Lord, in worship and fellowship with him, in order to see things the human eye cannot see.

Are Christians in America particularly well-placed to have an influence on religious freedom worldwide? How and what can we do to improve things for our brothers and sisters overseas?

Religious freedom is at the core of our country’s principles—it is something we should always be vigilant of and work to protect here at home. We should also use that freedom, not just to practice our faith but also to advocate on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are suffering because of the same faith. We are well-placed because we have this freedom and because we live in a democracy where our elected representatives are accountable to us.

There are lots of things Christians in America can do—it could be something as simple as sending a letter or card of encouragement to a person in another part of the world who is in prison or in a very difficult situation. One Christian received a letter from a child written in crayon, and it encouraged him through 20 years of imprisonment.

Or it could be highlighting a specific case or situation (like Leah’s) by sending a letter or even joining in a peaceful protest outside an embassy or consulate. It could be getting together with members of your church and contacting your representatives in Congress to use their position to raise a case. It could be sending an email to President Biden to ask him to make appointing an ambassador for international religious freedom a priority.

As you do these things, tell others what you are doing and why. Encourage them to join you. The more individuals our government hears from, the more likely they are to take action.

And in all things, please pray.

Some might say that fighting for religious freedom is counterproductive, because you’re making space for false religions, and because Christianity doesn’t need government protection. What would you say to that?

I’d say religious freedom does mean that people have the freedom to choose from an array of religions or beliefs, but it also ensures their right to hear the gospel and gives them the opportunity to respond to God’s invitation.

From a Christian perspective, religious freedom echoes the free will that God has given all human beings. He didn’t make us to all be puppets. And free will isn’t a result of the fall—it was given to Adam and Eve back in the garden, before sin even entered the world. So if I’m trying to work for the restoration of the world, I have to believe in God’s good intent and head in his direction. God set it up that way, and I’m going to go where he goes.

Free will isn’t a result of the fall—it was given to Adam and Eve back in the garden, before sin even entered the world. So if I’m trying to work for the restoration of the world, I have to believe in God’s good intent and head in his direction.

What gives you hope? What keeps you going when it seems like everything is a mess?

There’s nothing I’d rather do with the rest of my life. Honestly, it makes me want to cry. It is a privilege that I would find my purpose in the pages of Scripture—to advocate and fight for the blood of the martyrs (Rev. 6:9-11). That is crazy to me. My whole purpose, my whole mission in life, is to speak for those whom God has given and entrusted us to speak for.

You get to a place where you’re seeing the most total depraved space of humanity. It makes you hold onto the cross in a way you never thought you could. My hands right now are calloused from holding onto the cross while learning about the most depraved situations of men, women, and children being brutally slaughtered, raped, and imprisoned for a belief.

I know I’m in the right lane. It is the way of the persecuted Prince. I get to live it out, and that’s a privilege.

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