Half a century ago, the leaders of a synagogue in Cleveland erected a banner in front of their building to call attention to Jews who were being persecuted by the communist Soviet Union.
They couldn't have imagined at the time that they were launching a movement that went even beyond saving the Jews they cared about: It helped bring down the entire Soviet Union.
One observer, noting how the grassroots effort led to legislation that put economic pressure on the Soviet Union – a tactic emulated and expanded by President Reagan – summarized the story this way: "A few people with signs led to the destruction of an empire."
That's the inspiration behind a new effort by a growing coalition of activist groups called Save the Persecuted Christians.
The coalition, which includes groups such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, acknowledges the many individuals and organizations working hard to alleviate the plight of Christians suffering from such horrors as "forced expulsions from their homes and communities, rape, torture, enslavement, the destruction of their churches and holy sites, crucifixion and murder on a genocidal scale."
But the coalition emphasizes: "Unfortunately, despite their respective best efforts, such persecution is continuing and, in some places, intensifying."
'Irresistible transpartisan political force'
Philip Haney, a former Islam subject-matter expert for the Department of Homeland Security, is a member of the steering committee for Save the Persecuted Christians.
"We're not trying to recreate the wheel, but we're helping the wheel spin faster," he explained to WND.
The coalition has three main objectives:
- raise the awareness of the American people and their elected representatives about the plight of persecuted Christians worldwide;
- create an irresistible transpartisan political force to support them; and
- hold accountable those engaged in such persecution and create powerful disincentives to it.
While communist North Korea and China are among the world's worst persecutors of Christians, most of the nations are Islamic.
Haney, co-author of "See Something, Say Nothing," noted that Muslim nations won't be moved by a theological argument, because they believe Islam to be superior to Christianity.
An effective tactic, he believes is to put pressure on companies that do business with the countries that persecute Christians.
It's a tactic that has been employed for various causes.
"But we've never really focused it, that I'm aware of, at an effective level, on the cause of persecuted Christians," he said.
Haney said Christians worldwide need to unite to help the persecuted, noting the Coptic, Roman Catholic, Assyrian and Eastern Orthodox communities in the Middle East all have in common the fact that they are undergoing persecution.
"If we don't unite, we will be debating theology in the gulag or the afterlife," he said.
Among the leading members of the coalition is Johnnie Moore, an adviser to President Trump and the author of "The Martyr’s Oath: Living for the Jesus They’re Willing to Die For," who has become known for his advocacy for persecuted Christians.
In early 2014, Moore visited Capitol Hill to warn about the ISIS threat to Christians at a time when the terrorist group was little known and its capacity was downplayed by the White House. His advocacy was largely met by indifference and skepticism, he said.
He told WND in an interview last year that his warnings about ISIS weren't due to any prescience on his part. He simply was relaying what he heard from Christians, including a gathering in Jordan of church leaders from across the Middle East.
"They were all predicting, screaming, about what was happening," he told WND. "The signs were ever-present, there were increasing kidnappings and more threats."
There were as many as 1.4 million Christians in northern Iraq just 10 years ago, but it's estimated that less than 200,000 remain.
One year ago, the State Department determined ISIS committed genocide against Christian in Iraq and Syria. However, the Republican-led Senate has not acted on a bill passed unanimous in June by the House – the Iraq and Syria Genocide Accountability Act – which directs the State Department to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of displaced people, including Christians, Yazidis and Muslims.
But Moore argues the Trump administration is doing more than previous administrations to use foreign policy to raise the issue of Christians and others persecuted for their faith, including in communist North Korea.
U.S. foreign policy will never be perfect, Moore said, acknowledging the complex relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example, where Christian faith is completely banned.
"It's always going to be complicated, but I am heartened by the progress that we are making," he said
The international group founded by Brother Andrew known for its aid to persecuted Christians, Open Doors, estimates that every month worldwide 255 Christians are killed, 104 are abducted, 180 Christian women are raped, sexually assaulted or forced into marriage, 160 Christians are detained or imprisoned without trial and 66 churches are attacked.
In total, Open Doors estimates, 215 million Christians around the globe experience a high level of persecution.
It's often been noted that more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries dating back to Christ combined.
Emulating the chief tactic of the effort to save Soviet Jews, the Save the Persecuted Christians Coalition is asking faith leaders and houses of worship to post banners to help build awareness and encourage engagement.
The banners feature the "nun" letter, the first letter of the Arabic word for Nazarene, which historically has been used to designate homes of followers of Christ targeted for persecution.
Now, it has become an international symbol to raise awareness of the oppression of Christians.
Save the Persecuted Christians acknowledges there are many differences between saving Soviet Jewry from the oppression of one nation and saving Christians from persecution on a global scale.
But the opportunity to raise awareness today has been exponentially enhanced through social media, creating "a force-multiplying capability unavailable to, indeed unimaginable for, the previous generation's human rights and religious freedom advocates."
The display of signs at the synagogue in 1963 grabbed the attention of worshipers, passers-by, journalists, business leaders and politicians, eventually inspiring mass demonstrations in the United States and overseas.
The movement grew with the help of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel, student activists, the wife of prominent Soviet refusnik Avital Sharansky and the state of Israel.
The Save Soviet Jewry movement eventually was given political expression in 1974 when Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, D-Wash., and Rep. Charles A. Vanik D-Ohio, sponsored an amendment to the Trade Act of that year that tied non-market economies' access to Most-Favored Nation status to freedom of emigration.
The Soviet regime refused to agree to the requirements for Most-Favored Nation status and suffered further economic decline.
That strategy of economic warfare was later adopted by President Reagan, and the rest is history.