Two years ago 21Wilberforce entered into a strategic partnership with the Baptist World Alliance and one of the key goals was to develop a mobilization and support program to equip faith communities to engage in protecting religious freedom and defending the persecuted. Central to this program are regional representative 21Wilberforce Ambassadors that work with churches, organizations and individuals to help identify and meet needs of churches and members facing religious restrictions or persecution. Over the coming months we will highlight one of our Ambassadors and the impact they are making in their region.
Meet 21Wilberforce Latin Ambassador André Simão who is a tax attorney by profession and a religious freedom advocate by passion. Andre holds an LL.B and a Master in Law, he provides advisory services in Brazil for national and international companies. At the same time, throughout his career, André has assisted pro bono several local churches, missionary organizations, and Baptist Conventions entities, and served at the Rio de Janeiro Evangelical Hospital board of directors for many years.
21Wilberforce recently asked André to share about his experience as 21Wilberforce Latin America Ambassador.
Andre, you have a long history of working with those suffering for their faith in several countries, what led to your decision to accept the invitation to become Latin America Ambassador for 21Wilberforce?
The decision to join 21Wilberforce is primarily due to a total identification with its vision and way of being. 21Wilberforce has, over the years, developed a solid reputation for countering extreme religious persecution, with credibility because it stands for religious freedom for everyone, not just Christians. It is easy to see other characteristics of 21W, among which (a) a committed vision of developing new leaders to multiply initiatives, (b) sensitivity to adjust to the needs in each region, seeking practical solutions to make a difference, and (c) intelligence to develop partnerships and creative ideas, including the use of technology for mobilization for human rights. Stand out also campaigns for releasing prisoners of conscience, support for persecuted leaders, and engagement with government and congress members in the US and overseas to see oppressive laws reversed and structures changed.
So, accepting the opportunity to represent 21Wilberforce in my region came naturally to a Christian lawyer interested in international human rights law, who, from an early age, felt called to support those who suffered injustice and persecution. In 2 Timothy 4:16, the apostle Paul laments that no one came to help him in his first defense, and he felt abandoned. We want to support, in a practical way and with excellence, as many as we can, in their struggles against the injustices they suffer, for the faith they profess.
What have you focused on while serving with 21Wilberforce?
Initially, I focused on preparing the religious liberty conference, which took place online in July 2021 on the occasion of the quinquennial congress of the Baptist World Alliance. I contacted Baptist leaders in dozens of countries, those with a Baptist presence, where there is greater vulnerability and higher rates of persecution. We seek to hear their needs and demands, how we could serve them, bring their prayer requests to the world Baptist community, and record successful experiences defending persecuted people and mobilizing to change repressive laws.
I participated in the launch of the Brazilian IRF Roundtable and in the dialogues that followed, considering that the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2023 should be organized by Brazil. I responded to specific demands in the face of events in countries such as Nigeria, Myanmar, and Cuba, including requesting diplomatic authorities in my region to publicly express solidarity, allowing more visibility and favoring a response or solution.
However, the most intense and fruitful work took place from a reality we could not imagine. As soon as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, we received a cry for help from pastors and missionaries working in the country, so they could be immediately removed from there, as they feared being killed. In contact with other organizations, we helped rescue 30 Christians in the first month. We continued to receive calls for help, but the doors around the world were already closed to Afghans. The requests were for us to help rescue Afghan families of employees from Christian NGOs promoting human rights in Afghanistan. They were Christian converts and Muslims from a persecuted ethnic minority hiding in the country, fearing they would be reported, found, and killed. There was no way not to act.
We then helped connect these NGOs to contacts (through a network of International Religious Freedom (IRF) organizations, facilitated by former US Ambassador-at-Large for IRF Samuel Brownback) so that they could issue passports and visas and identify evacuation routes by land or air that would still work. Also, in September 2021, Brazil issued an ordinance that authorized granting humanitarian visas to Afghans, but no government support or reception structure was offered. Many asked for a Brazilian visa but received no response, and the process did not flow. I spoke with the leadership of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (BR MFA) and understood their concern that Afghans, unassisted in Brazil, would be exposed to dangers on the streets without being able to speak Portuguese. We needed to overcome this obstacle to be able to rescue Christians and Muslims, who feared a tragic outcome for having served Christian organizations in Afghanistan. I talked to organizations in Brazil and proposed starting a project to welcome these Afghans – and thus unlock the granting of humanitarian visas to Afghans by Brazil.
Brazilian Baptists soon accepted the challenge, which gave rise to the “Vila Minha Pátria” project, to initially accommodate 90 people still hiding in Afghanistan, with no other viable solution to leave the country. They worked for a Christian NGO in Afghanistan, developing income generation and women’s empowerment projects. Of this group, most arrived in Brazil in April 2022, when we opened Vila Minha Pátria. Since then, it has become the largest refugee reception and resettlement project in Brazil, a model project by Brazilian Baptists, praised by public authorities, IOM, and UNHCHR. Over 200 Afghans have been welcomed by Vila Minha Pátria so far, including many children, who already attend schools, and families have been reunited. Several families are moving to other places now, sponsored by churches, in the resettlement second phase (after the six initial months in Vila Minha Pátria). Some are employed already. There are now 153 Afghans in Vila Minha Pátria. And it lacks the space to tell the wonders that have taken place there!
I cannot fail to mention the solution we managed to solve for the impasse in Abu Dhabi, where thousands of Afghans were rescued on charter flights, including 1,300 Christians from the underground church in Afghanistan. UAE was a temporary solution, a “lily pad country” where they would stay for a short time until going to a definitive host country. But the world was closed, with no prospect of a solution, especially for religious minorities not covered by the eligibility criteria for visas in other countries. The answer to this impasse still sought, in the beginning, to allow the operation of new flights to evacuate people from Afghanistan. I worked with the BR MFA and the Brazilian embassy in Abu Dhabi, and, after many efforts, on September 5th, 2022, we won the solution to approve visas to welcome the first 130 in Brazil. When we overcame this challenge, however, the expectation grew among those Afghans that another country would also be able to accept them soon, so they preferred to wait for a final answer from that country before agreeing to go definitively to Brazil.
Going forward, what opportunities do you envision to advance freedom of religion or belief in Latin America?
The context of Latin America is unique, with a predominance of Catholicism and greater religious freedom than in other continents. But there are still problems that must be understood with cultural sensitivity, the most significant violations being in contexts of dictatorships and regions controlled by armed criminal groups. We must act when necessary, when there is a violation, and work to avoid setbacks in legislation – without allowing ourselves to be captured by discourses that selectively use the theme of religious freedom for political purposes.
There is much to be done, which is only possible through the collaboration and training of new-generation volunteers. We aim to develop a team of volunteers in Latin America, enabling them to identify, document, and act in the face of the most relevant challenges, such as cases of religious leaders who suffer discrimination or even imprisonment. This, of course, is always in support of local initiatives. As the experience of Afghans in Brazil illustrates, we can act in Latin America to support campaigns aimed at countries on other continents, such as those for releasing prisoners of conscience. We have had successful experiences in this regard. It is also necessary to spread more education, a culture that promotes awareness of the importance of religious freedom for all.