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January 29, 2018

Wilberforce A!ert: Religious Freedom Movement 2.0

It is a joy to congratulate Sam Brownback as the new Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom at the State Department. He’s a brilliant choice – for a ripe moment – as the religious freedom movement is poised for Version 2.0. While watching his long confirmation process, the Kansas state motto kept coming to mind, Ad Astra Per Aspera, which means “to the stars through difficulty.”  How fitting, as hard fought battles hone even more courage and vision. It will be an honor to serve with him once again.

We’ve come full circle. In 1996, Amb. Brownback was then a newly seated senator, and immediately jumped in, intrepidly defending the persecuted well before it was fashionable in foreign policy circles. I had a ringside seat as his new staffer, returning to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, where I defended democracy activists and people of faith as the Soviet Union crumbled to the ground.

Now, fast forward to this 20-year anniversary since the religious freedom movement achieved its greatest victory - the 1998 passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. Authored by 21Wilberforce’s very own Frank Wolf, Sen. Brownback and many others helped lead a seismic shift.

Where religious freedom was once a poor stepchild - even an orphan within human rights realms – it became a recognized fundamental right. That first movement catalyzed monumental foreign policy awareness and reforms for persecuted people worldwide. Yet despite serious gains in the policy world, systemic persecution continued for minority faiths globally, even increasing according to credible sources.

So, here’s the manifesto question: What’s stopping us from plotting Version 2.0 of the International Religious Freedom Movement? Building on the gains achieved so far and leveraging our present resources for exponential impact, could we help rescue ancient Christian and Yezidi communities from extinction in the Middle East, the Burmese Rohingya from genocide, and equip minority believers everywhere? (Think how precious your faith is to you – then picture you, your family or your community being crushed because of it in hostile places.)

Can we all embrace this 20-year anniversary as a catalytic reset, even a kairos moment?  At 21Wilberforce, we dare to think systemically, use leverage and scaling approaches, and employ social innovations and IT solutions as we:

  • Boldly challenge the Internet Fire Wall, which is the new Berlin Wall of the 21st Century.
  • Couple leadership trainings with lawyer networks, all virtually delivered and connected for embattled communities everywhere.
  • Generate an evidence base where persecuted people can report their presently uncounted suffering into one platform, at USCIRF perhaps, as Congressman Wolf’s legacy legislation directs.
  • Establish prisoners of conscience data collection.
  • Develop a congressional fellowship program where activist staffers are strategically placed in House and Senate offices, which was a key success factor 20 years ago.

Having joined 21Wilberforce this month, these circles of movement and social change – where we’ve come from and where we could go – swirl around. So, Ad Astra Per Aspera. To the stars and welcome back, Amb. Brownback.


  1. Send a note of encouragement to Amb. Brownback. Tweet to him @State_IRF, or send a message on Facebook @govsambrownback.
  2. Read the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act.
  3. Pray for a religious freedom movement 2.0 to be realized.
Region: Europe & The Americas
Keywords: Brownback,IRF ambassador,USCIRF,21Wilberforce,21st Century Wilberforce Initiative,21 Wilberforce

Sharon Payt

Sharon is a human rights lawyer and international development professional with more than two decades of leadership in successful reform campaigns and executive-level management.  Her social innovation efforts feature empowering reform movements in the U.S., Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.  Previously, she served as the Regional Advocacy Director for World Vision International, where she directed 15 countries; Senior Coordinator for Public Diplomacy at the U.S. State Department’s lead anti-trafficking office; Senate staff for Senator Sam Brownback, promoting successful bi-partisan human rights campaigns; and serving as an activist lawyer in Eastern Europe for democracy dissidents and embattled religious minorities during the Soviet demise. 

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21Wilberforce is empowering a global movement to advance religious freedom as a universal right through advocacy, technology and equipping.