Surprising Places of Witness

The World Evangelical Alliance champions human rights and religious freedom within the United Nations.
Surprising Places of Witness
Image: Pixabay/WEA

As I walked into the United Nations building in New York to meet Secretary General Antonio Guterres, I recalled a preacher who predicted that this world body was the coming world government, as he said had been prophesied in The Revelation.

Added to that ominous prediction of its coming role, many view the United Nations as deeply flawed: often biased in its analyses and lacking ability to muster sufficient authority to mediate armed conflicts, such as Rwanda. Particularly disturbing is its Human Rights Council, which is comprised of representatives from countries guilty of violating human-rights such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

Even so, this is what national governments turn to for help in times of humanitarian crises and military debacles flowing from its mandate to promote peace, justice and human rights, even as they are doing today in Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar.

Here, the world community airs it grievances.

As a quasi-form of government that encompasses the world, it holds no executive power. Keep in mind that the five permanent members of Security Council has veto powers and can resort to the use of military force, yet the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council (HRC) work independently from the Security Council.

Because the HRC can’t resort to armed force, countries can refuse to collaborate with their investigations. Even so, the Security Council is so conflicted that it would be quite impossible for the members to join together in a world takeover as some allege is a possibility.

As influential as the UN is, it isn’t the only or ultimate source of settling human rights violations. While it does possess moral and legal authority as permitted by member countries, apart from intervention by the Security Council, it doesn’t have military permission to intervene. It is a meeting place for countries, in which concerns and recommendations are heard.

With Special Consultative Status, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) engages with this body in its vision for human rights and religious freedom. Here, evangelicals have the opportunity to voice a defense for Christians and people of all faiths who are violated, marginalized and, at times, martyred for their faith.

At the UN, the WEA is an extension of advocacy from National Evangelical Alliances, lending the WEA the leverage to open government doors that would not be possible without a global voice.

After the 20th-century global wars, countries worked to create a central talking-place to release the buildup of country-to-country pressure that so often triggers conflict. Eventually, the UN became that means and organization. Its history is marked by success and pock-marked by failure. Yet it is a means by which we, with our values and beliefs, can talk with the world.

Approaching the third decade of this century, issues of religious freedom – people under the gun for their beliefs – continue unabated. It is not only appropriate but needful that the WEA exercise our opportunity to be in the marketplace of influence and ideas, bringing to the global public an analysis of whose freedoms and lives are being threatened and lost, ultimately serving our member alliances by acting as their mouthpiece to this world audience.

Two main locations of the United Nations

New York is where diplomats discuss global affairs, peace and security. Geneva is where human rights are the primary focus. In both cities, the essential work is to build connections to ambassadors, especially while the UN is in session. These contacts provide means for private conversations with ambassadors who would not otherwise hear our stories, concerns or ideas.

Geneva is the main center of activity for human rights. The trigger is the HRC, created in 2006 to replace the Human Rights Commission. At the same time in 2006, the UN established the Council’s flagship human rights accountability mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

Each country is required every four and a half years to undergo a public dialogue on their human rights record, explaining what they are doing to implement their international commitments.

Because the WEA holds Special Consultative Status, its staff has authority to inquire on the many issues surrounding human rights and to address restrictions of religious freedom, religious discrimination and persecution. Many organizations are active in making known these issues, but the WEA’s role is to represent National Alliances and to engage with leaders, working hand in glove with public agencies who voice their concerns and analysis.

Why does this matter?

Simple numbers have a way of answering that. In 1960, there were 90 million evangelicals. Today, there are over 600 million. Within the countries where there has been the greatest growth, there is often the most rampant violations of religious freedom. While people of all faiths are at times persecuted, Notre Dame University wrote in their report, In Response to Persecution, that the majority of religious discrimination victims are Christian.

Two points of rationale surface: first, with evangelicals now being the second largest group of Christians in the world (after the Roman Catholic Church), we have a responsibility to be active in ways that our global population never before demanded. Second, evangelicals now recognize that matters of justice concern the Heavenly Father. If he loves justice, we should too.

What successes are there?

Influencing a nation to modify its behavior or change its laws is difficult; yet that is what we seek to do. However, to tell specific stories of successes or failures would violate trust built up over years with representatives from countries often controlled by dictatorships.

One night in New York over dinner with an ambassador from a closed country, we exchanged stories of faith. I offered some books on faith which were received with evident delight. Did that relationship result in Christians being freed or laws being modified? Even if they were, we wouldn’t take credit for it, nor divulge our relationship.

Churches have been opened after being shut down because of our persuasive and persistent appeals. Pastors and missionaries have been set free through our personal intervention with a senior government leader.

Proposed legislation to curtail religious freedom was not passed after our personal mediation, and pastors in a closed country felt emboldened and secure to speak up against discrimination because they knew their voice was being relayed in Geneva. We know that the prayers of God’s people have enormous effect as his “Divine conspiracy” penetrates and upends plans made to obstruct the gospel story.

The UN Secretary General told us of his earlier days in Geneva and his appreciation for the WEA staff in assisting worldwide revelations of human rights abuse. He ended with a plea for us to ramp up our work in pressing for the rights of people, Christians as well as others. He said that given our world population, our credibility puts us in an important place of public advocacy.

This kind of work in difficult places is not described by most seminaries as the kind of place the Lord might lead you in a calling. Yet I suspect that Queen Esther’s careful engagement with public officials was not unlike what is required today: to be an agent of change.

Inserting our lives and witness into the workings of the United Nations is strategic and Spirit-led. Our witness is embedded in God’s love and justice, and our service is empowered by his Spirit. Justice flows from the throne room of God.

Brian C. Stiller is a Global Ambassador for The World Evangelical Alliance.

Support our work. Subscribe to CT and get one year free.

More from The Exchange

Christianity Today
Surprising Places of Witness