Every November, churches around the world dedicate a Sunday for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP).
Unfortunately, it is slightly misnamed—reflecting the significant corrections needed for our efforts in advocacy on its behalf. It should be the International Day of Prayer with the Persecuted Church.
But it also needs an additional adjective.
Christian, secular, and government-led religious freedom advocacy has increased in the last decade, not least with the impetus of the Trump administration. The results, however, remain elusive. Religious minorities continue to face adversity, scapegoating, discrimination, and violence.
We need to renew our understanding of how we can enact change in countries of persecution, so that Christian advocates can remove the severe constraints that impact their ability to witness, make disciples, and live out God’s calling on their lives. After a visit to Nigeria last year, I believe there are three steps that need to be taken for this to happen.
The first step is the creation of well-resourced and professional institutions.
In my five years of interaction with local believers, I have observed that they are not yet equipped to research, document, and report on human rights abuses. Many Western groups advocate for—but not with—Nigerian Christians, while local ministries are generally invited only to co-sponsor statements written by foreigners.
The Christian Association of Nigeria, the most representative national Christian body, is active and vocal. But it lacks the thorough reporting and policy recommendations that can properly influence government actions and inform external lobbying.
Terrorist attacks on church communities are well-known, as well as the widespread violence by armed Fulani herdsmen and bandits. As in most countries facing widespread human rights violations, the UN lacks proper access and must rely on credible NGOs to feed it with information.
But in recent months, two international Christian advocacy organizations shared with me their frustration at the lack of verifiable data on persecution. And similarly, a United Nations official told me that without proper documentation, the UN is unable to advocate for security protection.
Therefore, the official said, the 2020 Trump administration decision to designate Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC)—reversed the following year by Biden—was simply a political act.
In consultation with the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, the Nigeria Evangelical Fellowship is taking initial steps to address this deficiency. Last November, I attended their consultation on Islamic radicalization and the resulting insecurity that plagues Christians across the continent. Our aspiration is for these bodies to build long-term capacity to produce human rights reports, similar to those published by the alliances in India and Turkey.
The second step is building national momentum for change.
The cause of Christians is won primarily by appealing locally to the authorities, before advocating internationally against them. By working through the national courts, building a movement to address injustices, and proposing credible solutions, believers can lay the groundwork for a genuine and sustainable redress by their government.
Nigerian church leaders told me: "We met with President Trump. We worked with his administration. But they failed to influence our country for the better.” They emphasized that they were not critical of the US, but that their expectations were misplaced. Upon reflection, they cited their need to pursue change domestically, however insurmountable the challenges may seem. There are no shortcuts.
During my five years of work in Geneva, I have witnessed a world that is drifting apart, in which human rights—including religious freedom—are deemphasized in favor of energy, trade, and global alliances. The solution is to reach across geopolitical divides to build networks in which local Christian leaders are the key voices who inform and authorize international advocacy, primarily as a complement to their own domestic efforts.
The third step is to advocate beyond the issue of persecution.
Time and time again in Scripture, we see God acting on behalf of those who are oppressed. Our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world suffer persecution—sometimes because they are Christians, but other times due to the breakdown of law and order.
Last January, I spoke with Bishop Arkanjelo Wani Lemi, secretary general of the Evangelical Alliance of South Sudan. Due to the proliferation of weapons in his nation, land disputes between cattle herders and farmers frequently end in bloodshed. But he told me that the conflicting actors are both primarily Christian tribes—faith does not play a role in the violence.
Whether applicable to Nigeria or not, this shows it is not necessary to link Fulani herders to Muslim extremists to keep its Christian farmers on our agenda for advocacy.
Effective efforts must address policies for security sector reform and arms control, as well as the broader underlying causes of violence—government corruption, economic development, and inadequate access to health and education services. And as evangelicals, we inevitably need to advocate for reconciliation and peace.
Many groups are doing their best to report the statistics of persecution—but without development of the three steps listed, too often they fall on the deaf ears of officials in international bodies.
As an example, last February the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Africa (ORFA) issued a report on Nigeria. It was praised as an important tool that proves Christians are disproportionately targeted by local violence, and was cited to advocate for the reinstatement of Nigeria on the US CPC list. Colleagues recommend that I use it in my upcoming report to the UN.
Unfortunately, it does not provide information on the government response to these attacks, nor does it say what that response should be. It also does not disaggregate the data by actor, whether jihadist, herder, or criminal bandit.
As such, the report falls short in providing sufficient evidence of the scope of the problem. It neglects addressing the Nigerian government’s shortcomings and fails to give recommendations for action tailored to each offending actor. And it does not suggest locally viable solutions, instead appealing to the international community. A more comprehensive report would allow the UN and other nations to lobby on behalf of better security.
But it also misses the tragedy of southern displacement. As my visit to Nigeria ended, I asked the pastor driving me to the airport about his personal story. His mother, father, and whole family were forced from their ancestral lands, and now struggle to make ends meet in the capital, Abuja.
“What happened?” I asked with compassion but somewhat reluctantly, because the church consultation had saturated me with stories of violence by Islamist or Fulani armed groups, primarily in the northern and Middle Belt states.
“Oil spills,” he replied. “We lost everything.”
Farming and fishing communities in Southern Nigeria lost their water sources and saw the destruction of their way of life because of oil and gas extraction.
Nigerians displaced by such man-made disasters are no less worthy of our love, compassion, and advocacy than those driven out of their villages by terrorist violence. Nor can we claim that the message of the gospel is hindered by one form of displacement, and not by another.
I encourage Nigerian Christians to invest in the indigenous capacity necessary to set a full human rights agenda, steering international advocacy in accordance with rigorous standards, diplomatically precise language, and professionally measured benchmarks. The cost to hire local staff and develop robust institutions compares similarly to what some US-based advocacy groups spend on public relations and communication, and Nigeria’s large Christian denominations can also afford to contribute.
And once we drop the exclusive “religious” factor of analysis, our eyes will open to many more Christians in need of our advocacy—in Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large. Then, in robust and comprehensive solidarity with the body of Christ, we can change the language of IDOP to the International Day of Prayer with the Suffering and Persecuted Church.
Wissam al-Saliby is the director of the Geneva office of the World Evangelical Alliance, which advocates with the United Nations for human rights and religious freedom on behalf of national evangelical alliances in over 140 countries.