In a world inundated with worthy causes, one of the greatest challenges for nonprofits today is finding a way to make their voices heard. Getting a message out—let alone having it resonate—is difficult enough, but it is particularly daunting when you choose the fast-paced, short-attention-spanned environment of social media to deliver it. And yet the American Center for Law and Justice’s Be Heard Project has been incredibly successful in doing just that. Since the advocacy campaign launched in September 2013, the ACLJ has gained more than 20,500 unique “likes” on the campaign’s dedicated Facebook page, approximately 1,400 followers on its Be Heard Twitter account, and, most important, has been enormously effective in bringing attention and action to the needs of several individuals imprisoned for no other reason than their minority religious beliefs.
A little background: The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is a d/b/a for Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, Inc., a tax-exempt, not-for-profit, religious corporation as defined under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. A socially and politically conservative advocacy organization, the ACLJ was established in defense of constitutional liberties secured by United States law. The ACLJ Web site notes that the organization is “specifically dedicated to the ideal that religious freedom and freedom of speech are inalienable, God-given rights. The center’s purpose is to engage legal, legislative and cultural issues by implementing an effective strategy of advocacy, education, and litigation to ensure that those rights are protected under the law.”* Founded in 1990, the advocacy organization has participated in numerous cases before the Supreme Court, federal court of appeals, federal district courts, various state courts, and international tribunals around the globe; all in cases regarding freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
In 2012, before the creation of the Be Heard Project, the ACLJ launched “Tweet for Youcef,” a social media advocacy effort that permitted people to grant the organization access to their Twitter account to send a single tweet a day to the individual’s followers on behalf of Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian man who had been sentenced to death for apostasy and refusing to convert from Islam to Christianity and refusing to renounce his new faith.
According to Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the ACLJ, “the campaign ultimately reached more than 3 million individual Twitter followers on a daily basis, spanning more than 160 countries, and allowed people all over the world immediate access to the plight of Pastor Youcef, and to activate their individual networks to advocate on his behalf.”
Following the eventual release of Pastor Youcef, it became clear to the ACLJ that the Internet provided a portal through which the world could access ways to engage on behalf of the persecuted church. It was from this background that the ACLJ advocacy team birthed the idea for the Be Heard Project. Resonating with the Pew Forum’s 2013 statistics that 60 percent of American adults use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and 67 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds engage in political or civic activities on these sites, the Be Heard Project has been exclusively online. The ACLJ recognized an audience with untapped potential for action and immediately went to work. Says Barrans, “As the world, and especially the younger more tech-savvy generations, tune in to global persecution of religious minorities, we at the ACLJ recognized the value in establishing the Be Heard Project as a way to engage people in new and inventive ways.”
The Be Heard campaign Web site offers multiple ways for individuals to get involved, including real-time petitions and pregenerated Facebook posts and Twitter tweets. There are call-to-action videos featuring such popular Christian musical artists as Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Toby Mac, Michael W. Smith, the Newsboys, and Steven Curtis Chapman; a short ACLJ-produced documentary entitled “Let My People Go” was just recently released. It provides behind-the-scenes, in-depth coverage of the powerful stories of the persecuted victims and those fighting for their freedom.
In addition to the dedicated campaign Web site, there is also a Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube Channel. The ACLJ employs an in- house media team that produces their video and social media content on behalf of the cases they represent. Barrans notes that while the talent and time necessary to create these advocacy tools is significant, their influence is substantial. “The videos we’ve produced have received hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and Facebook. These views directly raise awareness, and viewers frequently respond to our request to take direct action for the persecuted. The engagement has been very encouraging, and continues to confirm the need for the Be Heard Project.”
Putting a Face on the Issue
The Be Heard Project excels at “putting a face on the facts.” The home page of the campaign Web site features “Current Cases,” which spotlight the personal stories of the individuals the ACLJ is aiding. Each case details the tragic unfolding of events, regular updates as time progresses, pertinent statistics (name of prisoner, days in captivity, country being held, reason for detention, and current number of petition signatures), and various ways to take action (donate, sign, share).
The campaign is currently focused on the plight of Saeed Abedini, an American citizen and Christian pastor who in July of 2012 was arrested and imprisoned for proselytization threatening the national security of Iran by gathering with other Christians in private homes. Mr. Abedini had returned frequently to Iran to visit family and finalize the board members for an orphanage he was building there. He has been in prison for more than 1,000 days.
The outpouring of interest and support for Pastor Saeed has been tremendous. The Be Heard Web site states, “A petition [was] started in Saeed’s name, and it quickly received overwhelming media attention. Secretary of State John Kerry has called for his release, the White House has called for his release, and the House of Representatives held two emotional hearings that highlighted Pastor Saeed’s plight. Multiple nations have called for Saeed’s release, and ACLJ attorneys have argued his case before the United Nations. Saeed’s petition has accumulated over 918,000 unique signatures.”
Throughout this advocacy push, the Be Heard Project has encouraged social media users to post, tweet, and retweet their support for this American husband and father, tagging each message with #SaveSaeed or #PastorSaeed. Both have appeared in the top list of trending hashtags on Twitter and Facebook. To keep their public informed and maintain the momentum of their efforts, the ACLJ posts regular updates on Saeed’s health and spirits, the conditions of his incarceration, and quotes from his desperate wife.
Campaign Strategies, Goals, and Objectives
The Be Heard Project utilizes several advocacy strategies to engage the public, including allowing members to write letters to prisoners of conscience, write letters to government officials both here in the United States and in the countries in which Christians are persecuted, share videos that highlight the persecution issue on their social media platforms, etc.
When asked why the campaign was needed, and to clarify its goals and objectives, Barrans offered this response: “The Be Heard Project model of advocacy personalizes the stories of the persecuted. We recognize that statistics and numbers, though they are compelling, rarely motivate action. For this reason we try to connect people to the real-life nature of an individual persecuted for their faith, even if that individual lives in a country halfway across the world.” She continued, “The goal of Be Heard Project is to motivate and encourage the next generation—to inform people far and wide about the issue of religious persecution—and to provide them a mechanism to actively engage their community and government to defend religious freedom”
Highlighting individual stories is an effective strategy to motivate engagement. It not only draws positive attention to the individual case, but also brings awareness to and advocacy for the broader issue of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. For this reason, Barrans says that while the project will continue to share individual cases on its platform, the ACLJ hopes that all of its participants and their advocacy will contribute to broader change in laws that discriminate and/or persecute religious minorities and promote the rule of law in countries in which religious persecution thrives.
Success and Next Steps
There have been several “wins” for the Be Heard Project, and the ACLJ has gratefully celebrated those successes with their public. There is the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian Christian man sentenced to death for his conversion to Christianity, and whose plight sparked the creation of the Be Heard Project. The international outcry initiated by the attention ACLJ brought to the case led to his unexpected acquittal and release from prison. And there is Mariam Ibraheem, the Sudanese woman sentenced to death in 2014 for her lifelong Christian faith. Once again, the spotlight shone on this issue by the ACLJ and other human rights organizations ignited international protests demanding her release.
Concerned citizens pressured their national leaders to get involved, and the embassies of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands issued a joint statement expressing “deep concern” about the case, urging Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion (AFP 2014). The European Union called for revocation of the “inhuman verdict,” and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Sudan to repeal laws banning Muslims from joining other faiths. Ibrahim’s release from Sudanese custody and escape to the country’s U.S. embassy can be described only as extraordinary. The government’s acquiescence can only be credited to the international firestorm of publicity the case received.
Barrans describes the future of the Be Heard Project as “bright.” The advocacy campaign continues to gain support and followers who engage the issue of religious freedom. Says Barrans, “We’re pleased that this project has been successful. We will continue to think creatively and dream of innovated ways to engage individuals on this most critical issue.”
The ACLJ is currently working on a system to implement even more social engagement, and open up the Be Heard Project to additional collaboration. Concludes Barrans, “We are currently fighting on behalf of many persecuted Christians around the world, and we are taking the cases to the public for engagement and action as often as we can. The Be Heard Project is a major focus of the work at the ACLJ, and the persecuted church needs a strong voice. We continue to stay focused on bringing justice to the persecuted.”
A 2013 Pew Forum study reported that 43 percent of social networking site users say they have decided to learn more about a political or social issue because of something they read about on a social networking site. Eighteen percent of users say they have decided to take action involving a political or social issue because of something they read on those sites. Clearly this is a medium that nonprofit advocates would be woeful to ignore, and the Be Heard Project provides a successful blueprint for initiating involvement. Describing her husband’s harrowing ordeal, Naghmeh Abedini admits, “The journey has been difficult, but knowing that the Lord has used this for the furtherance of the gospel and to bring more awareness on religious freedom issues worldwide has made the journey easier to bear.” The Be Heard Project’s innovative methods and relentless commitment to justice are a happy combination that is again set to prevail for freedom.