Saving Mariem, Hardwired for Freedom

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

In his latest media interview, Pope Francis says that “I am convinced that the persecution against Christians today is stronger than in the first centuries of the Church. Today there are more Christian martyrs than in that period.” (See more on the pope’s interview here. Read my interview with John Allen about Christian persecution here.) 

Today I received another disturbing dispatch about one of those persecuted – Mariem Yahia Ibrahim, the young Sudanese mother who is currently in prison with a death sentence for apostasy. Two of her children are in prison with her, kept from their father, her Christian husband, who is an American.

The e-mail from Aid to the Church in Need explains:

Exactly a month after she was sentenced to death, the Archdiocese of Khartoum, north Sudan, issued a statement describing her current predicament.

“There are many people trying to persuade Mariem to renounce Christianity in order to be freed but she is refusing.

“Some people are pleading with her husband to convince her to abandon [her] Christian faith in order to save her life but to not avail.”

The statement issued Wednesday June 11th, from Fr. Mussa Kacho, Episcopal vicar of Khartoum region, aimed to correct media inaccuracies and “pleaded” with authorities to resolve the case.

Describing the present situation, Fr. Kacho said: “Mrs. Mariem is still in Omdurman prison, practically on death row, breast feeding her child in chains. Her case is currently in the court of appeal.”

“No one knows when the appeal court will decide on it.”

“According to the concerned authorities, Mrs. Mariem can only be released on the condition that she renounces Christianity and gets divorced from her husband ‘Daniel’ to embrace Islam.”

“The only way to save their marriage, supposing that Mariem abandons her Christian faith, is for the husband ‘Daniel’ to embrace Islam and be remarried according to Islamic religion.”

The couple was married in the Catholic Church on December 19th, 2011. Her husband, Daniel Bicensio Wani, is a life-long Catholic and Ms. Ibrahim converted from Ethiopian Orthodox to Catholic shortly before her marriage.

Although her father was a Muslim, she was baptized and raised in her mother’s Orthodox Faith.

The statement from the Archdiocese of Khartoum stressed: “Never in her life did she embrace the Islamic religion nor renounce it. She has never been a Muslim in her life.”

It also drew attention to the fact that the 2005 interim constitution of Sudan guarantees freedom of religion: “no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not believe in nor to practice rites or services to which he/she does not voluntarily consent.”

The Church statement concluded: “Therefore, in light of the facts that we have provided above, and to honor Mariem’s steadfast position to maintain her Christian faith, we are pleading with the Judiciary and other concerned authorities to review the case against Mrs. Mariem and to bring it to a reasonable end.”

Tina Ramirez, a religious-liberty activist who runs Hardwired, “a global social justice movement mobilizing young leaders around the world to end religious oppression,” took a few questions about the case and her work.

Q: Mariem Yahia Ibrahim has given birth in jail. Will her husband be able to see them?

A: No. The prison officials originally said he could only see Martin once a week but he was able to see both of them once. But that story changed to a contention that he had no legal relationship to her.

Q: How is she even in jail? Does anyone in the Sudanese government care that this is actually drawing international scrutiny?

A: According to the sentence given her, as an adulteress and convert the father doesn’t have any rights to the children.

Q:  What will happen to her children if she is killed as per her sentence?

A: She won’t be put to death for two years while the baby is weaned. Martin will remain with her in prison.

Q: Why do we seem to have such limited media attention spans for these stories?

A: Because American media is entertainment driven!

Q:  What could a successful international pressure campaign look like?

A: We have been working in Sudan for the past two years, training lawyers, advocates, and religious leaders to mobilize public support for religious freedom in the new constitution. When this case came up, our Muslim lawyers on the ground who had attended our trainings attended the trial and protested her arrest. It is critical to recognize that unlike in Iran or Pakistan where these kind of cases arise, the public did not call for her death, instead they mobilized in her defense. The Sudanese people recognize that religious freedom is essential if they want to end the oppressive policies they’ve lived under for decades. 

The international community should be supporting the people as they work to amend the criminal code to end the death sentence for apostasy. Mariem doesn’t need asylum, she and all Sudanese need real freedom and that should not be lost in the campaign to free her. Americans have tried to “rescue” persecuted Christians from their countries, but that never changes the situation on the ground. For real success, we should support the people and help bring real freedom to Sudan.

Q: Is there something the American government can do? Is there anything Americans can do?

A: Yes, the administration should do everything it can to ensure Mariem and her children obtain the proper documentation to come to the U.S. and show the legitimacy of her and Daniel’s marriage.

Q:  What can be done about apostasy laws?

A: Apostasy laws violate the most fundamental freedom we have, to follow our conscience and not be forced to believe something against our will. Without this freedom, there is no freedom. These laws must be abolished. No one is safe under the laws, even the majority faith.

Q: What is Hardwired and why did you start it?

A: Hardwired comes alongside young leaders around the world to provide them the tools they need to fight religious oppression. When I began Hardwired, there were a lot of advocacy groups, but few providing strategic training to enable advocates and religious communities to defend themselves. There was also a lot of focus on religious freedom for particular communities, but religious oppression affects 5.3 billion people and is an injustice that requires a broad global coalition to fight.

Q:  What are your success stories?

A: Because of the groundwork we laid in Sudan, we are seeing a remarkable movement for religious freedom there. Unlike other countries with apostasy laws, there is a broad coalition of youth, women’s rights groups, journalists, lawyers, Muslim and Christian faith communities, political opposition leaders, and more coming to Mariem’s defense. They are calling for the abolishment of the apostasy law and they agreed to attend a workshop on religious freedom to prepare their arguments for this.

Q: What got you interested in this work in the first place?

A: I became interested in this work after learning about the genocide in Sudan where the government was enslaving, bombing, and starving Christians in the south as well as anyone that defended them. At the time, there were many organizations providing aid but none helping the people fight back. I started Hardwired to help the people counter religious oppression by building broad coalitions and mobilizing public support for true freedom for everyone, regardless of their faith.

Q: Do some domestic news stories — particularly hashtags – that pass into news cycles drive you mad? What do you wish Americans knew about religious persecution in the world?

A: Fighting religious oppression takes two groups: courageous leaders living under it and international public support for those leaders. The problem is that most international attention has focused on the awareness without any connection to or strategic support for the people on the ground. Only when we all stand together can we begin to see the end of so many injustices that are rooted in religious oppression. In Saudi Arabia, where the textbooks teach how to kill Jews, Christians, and homosexuals, these groups recognize that no one is safe under religious oppression; it’s a good lesson for all of us.

Q: Is there any low-hanging fruit internationally that could really save lives or otherwise make them better?

A: Education is critical to fighting religious oppression. It’s time for the U.N. to host a “Decade for Religious Freedom Education.” Decades have been commemorated for numerous other issues, but since religious oppression is at the root of so much injustice, and since religious freedom is its best antidote, education for this right is worth an investment. I did some of the first statistical research assessing the impact of the U.N. Decade for Human Rights Education and found that it helped give students a deeper appreciation for human dignity. Imagine what a decade could do to improve religious freedom?

Q:  Who are the heroes you interact with?

A: I feel honored to work alongside people that are constantly risking their lives for others — even others that don’t share their beliefs, from Asma Jahangir in Pakistan to the young leaders I’ve worked with in Iraq and Sudan.

Q: Who inspires you? What motivates you?

A: The people on the ground are my ongoing inspiration. When I hear how they are willing to sacrifice and suffer to follow the convictions of their heart in worship, my own faith is deepened. And it is my own faith that compels me to work for others to have the freedom to pursue something bigger. I like to say its what we’re hardwired for.

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