When Father Dominic Tran Dinh Thu was given a life sentence in a Vietnamese prison for holding religious-education classes for adults, a group of Trinitarian Fathers took action. They mounted a postcard campaign with the Catholic-affiliated Puebla Institute. Soon other groups, including the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), joined the effort. Tran’s sentence has been commuted to 20 years, and he is allowed occasional visitors and some packages. But the 86-year-old receives no mail and rarely sees a doctor, in spite of his failing health.

The fight for his release has been a frustrating one. Such battles are often hard-fought and only occasionally won. But when people become aware of human-rights abuses and get others to join the fight, they can make an impact. Here are seven strategic tips on how to fight for freedom.

1. Choose Your Battles

“How involved do you want to be?” is the first question Stan De Boe of the IRD asks people who want to get involved. “Human-rights groups range from those that are extremely active, to groups such as ours that do much more work on the U.S. side, to groups that simply ask you to pray or write letters to people in prison.” No one has the time or resources to fight with every weapon.

Nor should we try. “There is so much pain and suffering in the world, the best thing to do is pick one region or one country,” says Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

2. Get Informed

Once you know your focus, learn all you can. The more a person or group knows about an area’s needs, the more personal, and therefore more effective, the work will be.

Though not all can actually visit their areas of interest, there are several good ways to stay abreast of a region’s needs. Most human-rights organizations (see “Who’s ...

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