"How do we inspire the UK church to get engaged in issues of worldwide religious freedom?" was a question asked at this week's Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) church leaders' forum. It's a question that, as a church leader, I have asked myself, which is why I was keen to attend.
CSW is in the unique position of solely specialising in advocacy work – being a voice for the voiceless in regions such as North Korea, Indonesia, Burma, North Africa and the Middle East, seeking to bring about lasting cultural, social and political change.
However advocacy work isn't as attention grabbing as relief aid, often results are far less immediate and often not so quantifiable – yet advocacy is just as vital. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously once said: "We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself." CSW sees its role very much as a spoke in the wheel of increasing religious intolerance and hatred.
Which takes us back to our question – how do we get our churches engaged? Firstly, I hadn't appreciated the impact advocacy can have on issues of religious freedom worldwide. I'm not sure how many individuals within churches are clued up on this matter either. Do we feel equipped, and suitably inspired, to get involved?
During the forum we had a chance as leaders to brainstorm ways in which we can ensure our churches get more engaged. Top of the list was communication, and we recognised that social media can have a huge impact on this. There is, of course, always going to be the difficult balancing act of getting the facts out to those around the world while maintaining the safety of those in the midst of dangerous situations of persecution. Surely organisations involved and more informed than the general public would have to make the call on that.
There does seem to be a lack of coverage by national presses on matters of religious persecution, and when there is coverage it can often be ill-informed. The work of Lapido Media is to be applauded, which exists to promote an increase of understanding among journalists of how religion "shapes world affairs". Faith of all types impacts society in so many ways that we in the West really don't understand but surely it should be the job of those committed to reporting the news to find out more?
Those of us who are probably never going to be 'on the ground' as it were may be left feeling somewhat helpless – after all, what can we do that would have a dramatic impact on issues of religious persecution? Well, far from being a cop out answer, at the forum CSW Communications Director, Daniel Sinclair, encouraged us to view prayer as our main form of advocacy. Our prayers are powerful and effective in bringing clear change and justice to those who are persecuted. Much of CSW's work includes on-the-ground research and analysis of situations so we can pray for those going into very fragile situations to sift out the truth from much propaganda. We can also pray for research to be taken seriously at the highest level. We may not be involved directly but our prayers can be.
Daniel explained that the cycle of violence against religious groups really canbe broken if hate speech is drowned out by compassion and understanding. This is where the church can really rise up and shine.
CSW actually gives people the opportunity to write directly to those suffering for their faith. Their campaign Operation 18 is also a way people can add their voice to this international issue of religious freedom. It is based on article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." While this is, in theory, part of many countryies' constitutions the reality is often quite different. For more information on how you can get involved in each of these visit their website: http://www.csw.org.uk
What I took away from the forum was the urgent need to keep the plight of our brothers and sisters suffering around the world for their faith right at the top of our daily agendas. In doing so maybe we can chip away at the apathy and self-centredness that all too often pervade our western churches. I wonder what would happen if we turned up one Sunday to find our church building had been locked or even destroyed by the authorities? Would we, like Christians in Indonesia, simply hold the service in the street?
I think so often the problem is that it is totally beyond our experience to suffer real physical persecution for our faith and, unless you have done so (or seen it up close), it is easy to allow news of persecution to 'wash' over you without having a lasting effect. If we make a conscious effort to engage in some way – either through setting realistic prayer targets to ensure a new habit is formed, or perhaps taking up the suggestion to either write to persecuted Christians or petition on their behalf – then maybe we will begin to understand it more.
On 29 March, CSW are holding their Pursue Justice 2014 conference at the Emmanuel Centre in Central London. Open to all, this free event is designed to "equip you and other Christians you know in your biblical role of encouraging the persecuted Church and speaking up for religious freedom".
If, like me, you are wondering exactly how you can help those currently being persecuted internationally why not consider going along to learn more?