Behind every Asia Bibi—the Pakistani Christian mother of five still on death row after seven years over a false blasphemy charge—are the near-invisible lawyers who defend persecuted believers, pastors, and churches around the globe.
Only 1 in 5 American Christians think lawyers are highly ethical or contribute a lot to the well-being of society, according to surveys by Gallup and the Pew Research Center. But human rights lawyers overseas face death threats, arrest, detention without trial, beatings, and torture.
Over the past 25 years, 30,000 Christian legal advocates and judges in 156 nations have organized into national networks through the efforts of Advocates International (AI), based near Washington, DC. These lawyers—who work together across countries to release imprisoned pastors or harassed missionaries—are a vital part of the body of Christ that easily escapes notice, says president Brent McBurney.
“Our work helps the gospel,” he said. “If you don’t have lawyers who are following Christ to fight to keep the doors open for the gospel, then the doors close and no missionaries can go in.”
Such advocacy has gained high recognition in political circles. “In the more repressive countries, these lawyers are really heroic figures,” said David Saperstein, who served under the Obama administration as US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. “They often face harassment from authorities and persecution.
“They make a huge difference, and they work within a system often slanted against human rights and religious freedom,” he said. “Yet with perseverance and creativity, they may prevail in a way that makes a real difference.”
And many aren’t even Christian. For example, Bibi’s attorney is Muslim. Saif ul Malook was asked to represent the persecuted church cause célèbre after he prosecuted a man who had assassinated a Pakistani governor for supporting her. This is his first blasphemy case.
“To defend blasphemy cases in Pakistan is dangerous to life,” Malook said. “I am just waiting for the day when someone comes in front of me and shoots me dead.”
Leading advocates for the persecuted church, including Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs, recognize the essential role of lawyers because they rely on in-country attorneys to defend churches, pastors, and believers.
What experts say is needed next is for concerned Christians in the pews to follow suit and add support for these human rights lawyers to their current prayers and advocacy on behalf of the persecuted church.
Shaheryar Gill, who works with the Pakistan office of the American Center for Law and Justice, said many trial lawyers who defend clients accused of blasphemy are not experienced in such cases. For example, at Bibi’s first trial, her attorney “did not cross-examine the two main eyewitnesses who testified against her,” he said. “That means their testimony was not contested.”
If American churches supported new standards and better training for Christian lawyers, Gill believes persecuted Christians would have much better legal representation at their trials. In the meantime, “a Muslim attorney representing a Christian in a blasphemy case is not a bad thing,” he said. “It would show the court that a Muslim believes she is innocent.”
China Leads the Crackdown
This past spring, volunteers hand-delivered to members of Congress an open letter from the wives of four Chinese lawyers (two of them Christians) detailing the extensive torture used by China to obtain confessions that the lawyers violated Chinese laws.
The four lawyers were arrested as part of the so-called “Campaign 709,” in which China has detained 300 human rights attorneys since July 2015 on suspect charges such as “creating public disorder.” Half of the arrested attorneys are Christians, according to Bob Fu, founder of Texas-based China Aid. “It is a spiritually led movement.”
The letter recounts how security officials tortured the four lawyers with marathon interrogations, electric batons, forced consumption of drugs, water dungeons, and threats against family members. Their wives concluded, “These human rights lawyers are the pride of China and should be set free immediately.”
A decade earlier, an informal group of mostly constitutional lawyers saw that China was persistently ignoring its own constitution, as well as commitments it had made to uphold international human rights. They began defending Christians and other minority groups. But the government responded with escalating suppression of their efforts.
In 2009, China arrested Gao Zhisheng, once ranked among the nation’s top 10 attorneys. According to his book, A China More Just, he became motivated to represent religious minorities such as Falun Gong and persecuted pastors after he became a Christian. Gao is currently still in China, but under intense surveillance and house arrest.
“Communism’s global defeat and extinction shows God’s plan,” Gao wrote in the foreword of his new book, Unwavering Convictions. “First in that while all communist regimes seized power through violence, they have been vanquished through the peaceful opposition of their own citizens.”
But Fu has a different take. “The rule of law situation has not been worse since the end of the Cultural Revolution,” he said, citing China Aid’s 2016 annual report which calculates persecution to be at a 10-year high. Among its findings:
- 48,100 total persecuted Chinese Christians
- 3,526 Christians arrested, including pastors
- 765 court cases against Christians for religious activity
A recent Freedom House report agrees that “under Xi Jinping’s leadership, religious persecution in China has increased overall.” Today, a third of the persecuted Christians on Voice of the Martyrs’ Prisoner Alert list are Chinese.
Fu said Christian lawyers are taking a class-action case to China’s National People’s Congress, alleging that dozens of recent regulations on religion are unconstitutional. About 100,000 letters have been submitted in support of this case.
Many Chinese lawyers are dissidents, resisting China’s communist system entirely. In contrast, one prominent Christian lawyer, Zhang Kai, was renowned for working within China’s legal framework.
But even Zhang was arrested in 2015, just prior to a scheduled meeting with Saperstein in Wenzhou.
“Zhang is not only a fascinating figure because of his skills as an attorney, but also because of his bedrock determination to work within the Chinese legal system,” the former ambassador said. “His arrest symbolized not honoring someone who was trying to work within the system. It obviously had a chilling and disconcerting impact on advocates for religious freedom in China.”
Zhang was a key figure in defending some of the 1,200 churches during the cross removal campaign in Wenzhou, a city known as “China’s Jerusalem.”
While in detention, Zhang confessed on state television to charges of criminally disturbing public order, which his supporters rejected. He was released after six months.
China leads a global trend. Three-quarters of the world’s population faces significant restrictions on religion, according to Pew. Social hostilities and government restrictions recently hit record highs, Pew calculates based on data from 2007 to 2014 (the latest year available).
Outside China, there are only a few Christian lawyers either in prison or under house arrest. One example: Nguyen Van Dai founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam in 2006, and later the Brotherhood of Democracy. Two years later, the government arrested the Protestant attorney. He served four years in prison, and then was subject to house arrest. In March 2015, the house arrest ended. But in December, government officials rearrested the 47-year-old for “spreading propaganda.”
Unity Makes a Difference
A quarter century ago, Bulgarian Latchezar Popov became a born-again Christian.
For generations, his family was faithful to Eastern Orthodoxy. His wife became born again before he did, and he noticed that she had changed for the better. It wasn’t long before Popov gave his life to Christ.
This was shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A lawyer, Popov was drawn toward human rights advocacy due to his new-found relationship with Christ. After Bulgaria threw out its communist constitution, Popov discovered that new evangelical churches had difficulty registering their congregations with the government so that they could own property and operate openly.
“The Holy Spirit was calling his followers for different missions,” Popov said. “People like me, experts in other areas—lawyers, doctors, engineers, people with high education—joined the church that had been underground.”
Popov began new discussions with top government leaders about the rule of law. It was a time when Bulgaria turned to the West for answers. “The government was open,” he said. “Rule of law did not exist. We wanted to shake hands with the West.”
By 1994, Popov learned of AI and he signed on to be the first international lawyer in AI’s network. “I have a passion to defend pastors,” he said.
He started Rule of Law institutes first in Bulgaria, then other parts of Eastern Europe. Today he works in Western Europe, and recently traveled to Indonesia to assess the needs of Christian lawyers in the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world.
Popov says there are new kinds of religious freedom problems in Bulgaria today, and Christian lawyers are coming alongside pastors to resolve them. Some officials have resisted screening the Jesus film. Other local officials have declined to give permits for churches to use office buildings for worship.
The Bulgarian government has lately favored the Russian Orthodox Church, resulting in a religious split between Russian and Bulgarian Eastern Orthodoxy. Buildings have been confiscated as the split has widened.
“A major challenge is meeting together to understand the peculiarities,” Popov said. “We come with love, not imposing our views on local groups.”
Over the course of AI’s ministry, the Christian lawyers affiliated with the network have posted impressive results. They’ve aided 1,000 missionaries with visa problems and 8,000 refugees with legal issues, and have helped 3,500 Russian churches successfully register with the government or reclaim confiscated properties.
McBurney likes to repeat the story that AI founder Sam Ericsson told many times about Christian lawyers and what they could do for persecuted churches, pastors, and others.
Picture a cliff, he says. At the top of the cliff, there is conflict and people are being pushed off the cliff. There are three responses.
The first response is to go to the bottom of the cliff and help the people who have been injured. “But there are lots of organizations doing this already,” McBurney said.
The second response is to go to the top of the cliff to expose its owner, saying, “You are bad and you are doing bad things.” The cliff owner responds, “Go away. We don’t want you to expose what we are doing.”
The third response is to go to the owner of the cliff and say, “How can we build a guardrail on the edge of your cliff legally? So that your people are not getting pushed off the cliff, and you are no longer perceived as the bad guy.”
“This idea of building the guardrail is what [AI] has always encouraged our lawyers to do in their own countries,” McBurney said. Some governments are willing to build those guardrails to protect persecuted churches. Other nations, like North Korea, are not.
In a nation like Iran, McBurney said AI might encourage a Brazilian Christian lawyer to advocate for persecuted pastors. Because “America is the great Satan” in Iran, Americans would have little access to Iranian authorities. “This is one way of making a difference.”
McBurney said Christian lawyers overseas are often isolated and think of leaving law to pastor or serve as missionaries. But when these lawyers meet at conferences, their perspective changes.
“I have solidarity with these lawyers,” one attendee at an AI meeting told McBurney. “God has called me to this. I can be salt and light.”
“Supporting local attorneys really has been effective to bring about relief of Christians in prison for their faith,” said Ann Buwalda, a Christian human rights lawyer and founder of Just Law International.
“If the vocation is a lawyer instead of a pastor, the Christian lawyer being supported is undertaking claims where they are defending the Christian community within the country,” she said. “That is a type of missionary endeavor that ought to fit within the context of every church’s missions program.”
Timothy C. Morgan is director of Wheaton College’s journalism program. Additional reporting by Morning Star News.
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