Faithful among the nations
One man’s fight for persecuted Christians around the world
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Hundreds of vibrant flags flutter overhead in a warm spring breeze as Wissam al-Saliby strides across the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva. He’s sharply dressed in a dark suit and maroon tie, backpack slung over one shoulder. Tall and lean, only a tiny silver streak in the dark hair over his temple hints that he’s older than he first appears.
As he heads up the hill, al-Saliby slows his long stride and points out several significant landmarks: the former League of Nations building, the Red Cross Museum nearby, and straight ahead, the main building into which rivers of people are flowing. From his relaxed demeanor, it’s impossible to tell that this is al-Saliby’s most intense workweek of the year. Inside the building ahead, the United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting, and as director of the World Evangelical Alliance office in Geneva, al-Saliby is here to advocate for religious freedom for evangelical Christians worldwide. It’s a role al-Saliby says God spent decades preparing him for.
The World Evangelical Alliance is a network of churches and international organizations in over 140 nations. Its aim is to give a global voice and platform to evangelical Christians, many of whom face rising persecution. According to the Open Doors World Watch List, 2022 was the worst year on record, with 360 million Christians worldwide suffering high levels of persecution or discrimination for their faith. While many American Christians view the UN with skepticism, its structure provides the only global venue for evangelicals to have their voices heard.
Nearly every country with an evangelical presence also has some form of organization representing them on a national level. Each national organization brings together members across the denominational spectrum, united around the basic tenets of evangelical faith. In countries where evangelical populations are smaller, such as in Southern and Eastern Europe, speaking with one voice to government and media can make the difference between being heard and being brushed aside as an irrelevant minority—or worse, being targeted for persecution.
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) is an umbrella group over the national and regional ones to advocate for religious freedom at a global level. And that’s why al-Saliby is here now, heading into a conference room not far from the vast hall where the Human Rights Council holds its sessions. About 20 people crowd into the small space. All represent organizations that advocate for religious minority groups, including Muslims, Quakers, and atheists. Alliance Defending Freedom has a representative present, and the 600 million evangelical Christians worldwide have al-Saliby.
In addition to his role at the WEA, al-Saliby is vice president of the UN Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief. It has arranged this meeting with UN Special Rapporteur Nazila Ghanea, who recently began her mandate. (The United Nations uses the term special rapporteur to refer to the human rights experts it appoints in particular domains of concern.)
Al-Saliby greets Ghanea warmly and leads her to a place at the head of the table. As more guests arrive, he quickly pulls in more chairs from the adjoining offices. When the discussion starts, he brings up the topic of recent church closures in Algeria. Al-Saliby furrows his brow as he concentrates on Ghanea’s response. Later he calls the exchanges perfunctory, but allows that the meeting was really about building and keeping relationships.
That’s the reason he’s at the United Nations, and that’s what makes it possible for him to speak on behalf of Christians. To prove his point, he cites a time when he spoke to a diplomat from Tehran about the closing of a church in Iran. The diplomat dismissed the issue, claiming persecution was not a problem and boasting that Iran even had a Christian member of parliament. When al-Saliby showed him the statement of that very member criticizing the government’s actions toward the church, the diplomat was shocked.
“He asked me to talk with his colleague as well, and they said, ‘This shouldn’t happen. We shouldn’t be doing this,’” al-Saliby recalled. “Where else could I meet as easily with that diplomat if not here? It’s a tiny, tiny drop in the ocean of effort. But that’s how we can help Iranians keep churches open. And that wouldn’t happen if someone weren’t here, and if we didn’t have the UN to convene.”
AL-SALIBY IS NO STRANGER TO CONFLICT. Born in Beirut in 1983, he grew up as the Lebanese Civil War raged. When he was 4, an armed group fired a rocket onto the playground of his school during recess. It killed a young schoolmate and left al-Saliby with a gash in his neck. He still bears the scar.
Even though he was raised in a traditional Lebanese Orthodox family, at 16 al-Saliby attended an evangelical revival-style event. The importance of Bible study drew him, and he began attending an evangelical church on his own, despite his family’s misgivings. Always interested in justice and human rights, he studied humanitarian law in Lebanon and France and made plans for graduate work in the United States, where he had a scholarship. That was 2006. Three days before his departure, war broke out between Israel and Lebanon, and Israeli aircraft bombed the Beirut airport. With the U.S. Embassy closed, American officials advised him to go to Damascus, Syria, to grab a visa and a flight. Then Syria jumped into the conflict.
Al-Saliby found himself with no visa and no flight, stuck in a country suddenly at war. He canceled his study plans and decided to stay. He began working as a translator for Human Rights Watch, investigating killings on both sides of the conflict. He was only 24.
“It wasn’t easy,” he says with a sigh. “You’re going in and trying to identify who died, why, when, whether or not there was a military objective.” Hard as it was, those years prepared him for his current work. “That experience is still very valuable to understand how you do field investigations and to measure gross human rights violations.”
DURING LUNCH IN THE BUSY UN CAFETERIA, while keeping up a jovial conversation with his colleagues and visitors, al-Saliby suddenly excuses himself to answer an urgent message on his phone. It turns out he’s coaching someone who has inside information on church discrimination in a Central Asian country. Often, the WEA office is a clearinghouse for information that people have but don’t know where to send. Al-Saliby can bring the information to the table anonymously in a way that won’t put the church on the ground in a worse predicament. That work almost never shows up in the headlines or newsletters because it could jeopardize local Christians.
Good record-keeping is essential because that’s the kind of data he can present to governments and the Human Rights Council. “What happened? Who? What? When? Where? How did you verify it?” al-Saliby says, emphasizing the importance of laying out and corroborating the facts. Many countries where Christians are under threat do not have organizations with good systems of data collection. Al-Saliby met earlier this year with evangelical leaders in Nigeria to encourage them to carefully document violence against Christians in an effort to gain leverage in talks with the government. “Nigeria gets a lot of international attention, but the international attention cannot yield any result if there isn’t real ownership by the local churches,” he says.
Al-Saliby insists that for global advocacy to work, internal advocacy needs to happen first. “This is a grassroots effort. I tell them, ‘You cannot rely on people outside the country. The WEA can only support you if you tell us what to do.’” That means locals petitioning their own government for freedom of religion, which means finding and training local people with legal expertise in religious liberty. At least half of the funding for those efforts should come from inside the country, so local communities have a stake in the work, al-Saliby says. In some cases, he knows Christian lawyers ready to advocate for evangelicals in their country—they just need funding to do so.
When a national evangelical alliance writes an official statement on a particular subject, such as attacks on tribal Christians in India or tax discrimination against an evangelical church in Italy—two cases currently ongoing—that gives the WEA the green light to work through appropriate channels in Geneva. “States don’t want to be criticized by other states,” al-Saliby says. “National churches need to feel they’re part of a bigger family. We amplify their voice here, and that makes the government think twice before doing something against the local church.” Bulgaria’s 2018 religion law offers one example for how this works. When the Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance sounded the alarm about how the legislation would severely restrict activities and funding for religious minorities, the European Evangelical Alliance issued statements to European human rights institutions, and the WEA brought an international spotlight. Under international pressure and through the united prayers of Bulgarian Christians, the government backed away from its initial position.
AFTER LUNCH, 80 DELEGATES file into a large meeting room. They set a placard with the name of their country in front of them. Each desk is equipped with a microphone and headphones with a switch to choose one of several language channels. The woman representing the Seychelles wears a brilliant turquoise silk dress, while delegates from Iran and Cuba are dressed in sober suits.
Along with the World Council of Churches and Caritas, a Roman Catholic humanitarian organization, the WEA is presenting a report on the impacts of sanctions on humanitarian work. Panel members list problematic instances of over-compliance with sanctions: Afraid of repercussions, banks are skittish to transfer funds to aid groups on the ground in Syria. Some medical equipment isn’t allowed in, despite exemptions. After the earthquake in Turkey that also affected northwestern Syria, “even personal hygiene packages were turned away because they contained nail clippers!” al-Saliby says. The groups presenting here will relay the information to those who enforce restrictions, in the hope of finding a better way forward: “We are not against sanctions,” al-Saliby implores. “We are for human rights.”
After his stint at Human Rights Watch, al-Saliby went to work for Geneva Call, an organization that tries to get nonstate armed groups to commit to protect civilians, bar child recruitment, and ban the use of anti-personnel landmines. Its goal is to prevent war crimes among groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Fluent in Arabic, French, and English, al-Saliby interacted easily with both international agencies and the groups on the ground.
Then, in 2013, with a human rights career on the rise, al-Saliby felt God’s call to ministry. He began work at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, near Beirut, one of the only places in the Arab world where Muslim-background believers can study Christian theology. While building the development department, he met students from all over the Arab world who shared stories of God’s call and the desire to reach their countries for Jesus despite intimidation.
During his time at ABTS, al-Saliby met his American wife, who was visiting Lebanon on a mission trip with her Texas church. During a coffee break and in between calls to set up meetings with diplomats in town for the Human Rights Council, he proudly shows me pictures of their two young daughters playing on a slide. These weeks when the session is in full swing are hard. “I barely get to see them,” he says despondently. “By the time I get home, they’re asleep.”
In 2017, when the WEA needed an advocacy officer in Geneva, though starting a family and settled into his work at ABTS, al-Saliby felt God’s call again. He tentatively broached the topic with his boss and his wife, who both confirmed that he was just the right man for the job.
THE MONDAY MORNING AFTER MY VISIT, al-Saliby presented statements to the entire Human Rights Council on religious freedom in India and Algeria—in English and Arabic. He had just two minutes to sum up the concerns of evangelicals in those countries. On India, he highlighted ongoing violence and displacement of religious minorities and called for an end to “anti-conversion” laws. On Algeria, he appealed for the reopening of evangelical churches the government forcibly closed.
Speaking to a hall of UN delegates is the most visible aspect of al-Saliby’s job, but it’s only a small part. Most days, he’s at a little desk rented from a local Geneva church. His few colleagues work remotely, and more reports of persecution come in than they can handle. That means only a fraction of the stories of persecuted believers get told. Al-Saliby bemoans having to choose whose cause to champion, and he prays to one day expand the office.
A few weeks later, al-Saliby emails to tell me that work done during the days of the Human Rights Council meeting led to the recertification of government-closed churches. He can’t name the country due to security concerns, and while that victory can’t be made public, al-Saliby takes satisfaction in meaningful change.
He recognizes that the United Nations, with all its bureaucracy and pomp, is only a flawed, man-made system. Even so, it’s a unique institution in the history of the world, and al-Saliby sees it as a forum where Christians can engage. “As ambassadors of Christ, when we speak at the United Nations, we are very careful that our tone and our engagement first reflects the hope that is bigger than this. We cannot fight here as if the United Nations is the hope. We are fighting here because we have a greater hope.”