‘Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes; it’s the fuel that ignites the fire of an intellectual’s thoughts.” Raif Badawi dared to write such things in Saudi Arabia — including exercising his own freedom, asking questions about faith, and challenging extremism — so he was imprisoned for apostasy for ten years. He was flogged, although not yet the 1,000 lashes he was sentenced to, because a doctor determined it would be too much. He’s been separated from his young family since his detention in 2014.
His legal team has chronicled the various ways his imprisonment is unjust. In 2018, they wrote in Time:
His sentence of lashings was itself illegal — as physical torture is prohibited under the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia in 2009, and the U.N.’s Convention Against Torture, which the nation ratified in 1997. The criminalization of Badawi was ultimately the criminalization of the protected rights he sought to exercise and of freedom itself.
“This is all just about freedom. It’s not like they are asking for anything. Literally this is all just for freedom,” pleaded Nadine Maenza, the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, as she met Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haider, for the first time, after years of advocating Badawi’s release. Haider and her three children (14, 16, and 17) are currently refugees in Canada, praying for Badawi to be freed to join them as a Canadian citizen. Haider is a petite powerhouse, and one of the nearly 1,000 who traveled for a first post-COVID gathering of this kind, in Washington, D.C. (Many speakers from Europe, including Coptic Bishop Anba Angaelos, were prohibited by COVID restrictions from participating in person.)
Maenza is determined to see Badawi reunited with his wife and children. And while he is the most celebrated prisoner of conscience she advocates for, he is far from alone. The Summit is brimming over with people who have stories of attacks on freedom and humanity. Maenza and Haider met for the first time in person at a reception following an ecumenical prayer service lamenting the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. What is the message Turkey is sending about its respect for non-Muslims? And it’s not just non-Muslims. Mustafa Akoyl, author, most recently, of Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance, is a native to Turkey but lives in the United States now, where it is safer to write as a Muslim about the need to reform Islam.
Mariam Ibraheem is a Christian from Sudan who has lived to tell the story of her death sentence. When she married a Christian man, she was informed she had broken apostasy law. She was raised by her Christian mother after her Muslim father abandoned her, so Sudanese authorities say she’s a Muslim apostate. For refusing to recant her faith, she was imprisoned with her nine-month-old son on Christmas Eve. While in prison, she unexpectedly learned she was pregnant; she was forced to give birth in shackles. She and her children were granted asylum by Italy in 2014, and they have since moved to the U.S. From the stage at the International Religious Freedom Summit, she declared, “My freedom is in Christ.”
At every turn, you ran into someone extraordinary, with a harrowing story to tell. And it was people of all faiths. At lunch, I met an Ahmadi Muslim who is fighting blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Tursunay Ziyawudun, a Uyghur Muslim, described the “indelible scars on” on her heart from the violence she suffered at the Chinese detention camps in Xinjiang. Others talked about the Iraqi Christians who are languishing in a failing Lebanon; seven years after they fled from ISIS, not one of them has been granted refugee status. Archbishop Basar Warda was brokenhearted as he spoke about the men who are without jobs in Erbil. Even as he has managed to open a Catholic University and is getting a Chesterton Academy off the ground for the younger ones, husbands and fathers are feeling useless.
Before I even entered the conference hotel on the closing day, I met Father Joseph Fidelis Bature, a Nigerian priest who, with the help of Aid for the Church in Need, ministers to women who have been tortured by Boko Haram. When he and his bishop became aware of the horrific torture these women have undergone, he went to Italy for psychological training. He works with a team of counselors who occupy the women; most of Boko Haram’s victims are Christian, but some are Muslim women who wind up in the care of the Catholic church. Without going into details, he tells me that is it not unusual for these women to be raped in the most brutal ways — often involving a gun. He talks to me about his own faith and how God has been with him as he has faced the heart of evil and its ravages.
Men make choices and can be quite cruel when caught up in evil. Here in the United States, we face some challenges, but nothing like what these stories relate — which is why it’s so critical to advocate for the persecuted and defend religious freedom at home.
You would have to have some superpower that I certainly lack to not cry upon hearing Irene Weiss talk about her time in Auschwitz, where she lost most of her family. It is chilling to hear her say, as she did at the summit: “Not only is anti-Semitism alive, but there are those who deny and distort the reality of the Holocaust.” As we move out of our COVID-shutdown world, where we gave the impression that religion isn’t essential, let the persecuted remind us of the fragility of religious freedom.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.