Why Religious Freedom in Sudan Matters to All of Us

With Meriam Ibrahim and her children facing torture and impending death, a surprising collection of activists have fought to save them.

Commendable press coverage and social media efforts pushed the Sudanese apostasy case of Meriam Ibrahim into the spotlight. Protestors, activists, and members of Congress demonstrated outside the White House on the issue, and the Sudanese ambassador to the United States invited activists to visit Meriam. Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry broke his silence and called on Sudan to respect Meriam’s fundamental right to freedom of religion. And today, in a heartening turn of events, it appears that a Sudanese appeals court has reversed the ruling against Meriam.

But in all the coverage a key fact has been largely ignored, which sheds significant light on what this case means to Sudan and religious liberty there: Meriam’s Sudanese attorney is a Muslim man.

To recap, Meriam was born to an Ethiopian Christian mother and a Muslim father. After her father abandoned the family early in her life, she was raised as a Christian by her mother. Meriam had always considered herself a Christian, so it made sense that she would marry Daniel Wani, a Christian man from Sudan who is also a U.S. citizen. But because her father is a Muslim, Sudanese law — which incorporates a strict version of Sharia law — considers her a Muslim and does not recognize her marriage to Daniel. Thus, she had been charged and convicted of both adultery (for her relationship with Daniel) and apostasy (for changing her religion). Her sentence: a hundred lashes, then death by hanging.

While she waited on an appeals court ruling in the case, Meriam was chained to the wall of a notoriously filthy and overcrowded prison. With her were her toddler son and newborn baby daughter, who suffered in these terrible conditions with their mother.

These events are understandably horrific from an international human rights perspective. But they overshadow another aspect of this story, one that deserves the attention of anyone truly interested in the spread of freedom worldwide. The Sudanese attorneys representing Meriam and her husband, led by Mohaned Mustafa Elnour of the Justice Center in Sudan, are Muslims who are defending a non-Muslim’s right to choose her own religion.

Her attorneys strongly believe in her case, and despite receiving death threats for defending a Christian, they vowed to fight to the end and exhaust all appeals. They recently filed an appeal with the African Commission on Human Rights. Yet despite her attorneys’ valiant efforts, it does not appear that U.S. officials met with anyone from the Justice Center. Meeting with local religious liberty advocates should be step one for representatives of the U.S. government.

Moreover, according to the international religious freedom organization Hardwired, Sudanese Muslims protested Meriam’s sentence and conducted demonstrations against her conviction. They acted openly and in public, in view of the Sudanese authorities. This is a significant development, especially in a Muslim-majority country that follows a strict Sharia code. In other nations with similar versions of Sharia, like Pakistan, the accused have been murdered before even entering the courthouse. Seeing fellow citizens demonstrate in public view on their behalf is unheard-of.

In so many places where human rights are threatened, the ultimate solution is still to remove (through a grant of asylum or refugee status) the individual from the country with the hostile legal regime. Even Afghanistan, with the American money, toil and presumably values poured into it in the last decade, could not inculcate sufficient local support for a Muslim convicted of converting to Christianity. Meriam’s situation is so significant because her attorneys and the protesting crowds have been expressing their support for a domestic human rights framework that will be able to handle religious freedom challenges when they inevitably arise in the future.

To be sure, this issue is far from resolved in Sudan; not all Sudanese feel the same way as Meriam’s supporters, and there are reports of threats to Meriam’s life.

Law follows culture, and support for religious diversity in places where it has been unknown will pave the way for repeal of draconian apostasy laws. These brave Sudanese religious freedom advocates deserve our support. They are the world’s best hope for a Sudan that supports the rights of its citizens instead of one that forces the minority to flee.

We await that time eagerly. We are thankful that Meriam is to be released. Her advocates must be commended and encouraged. Yet it is still not safe for her in Sudan. Thus, we call on President Obama to heed the thousands of petitioning Americans who have asked that he grant her and her two children expedited safe haven in the United States.

Travis Weber
Written by