Meriam Yehya Ibrahim is married, 27-years-old, mother to a 20-month old son, 8-months pregnant, and last week was sentenced to death for being a Christian.
Her story is not all that uncommon. Her father was Muslim, and her mother was an ethnic Christian. As is common in much of the world—including the United States—Muslim men frequently marry non-Muslim women, because by Islamic tradition their children are considered Muslim. It frankly doesn’t matter what the children of that religious mish-mash marriage actually believe about God or faith; because the father was Muslim, so are the children. Period. These kind of marriage don’t often last—but that is not their point. Their point is simply to expand Islam through the children.
Such was the case for Meriam. Her parents had two children, herself and a brother. Her father then left her mother to raise both of them. Her mother came to faith in Christ, and raised her children in the church. Meriam grew up, and (as Christians are prone to do) married a believer, and had a son.
Her brother meanwhile had left Christianity and returned to the religion of his father. He reported Meriam to the police, who arrested her, tried her in an Islamic court, and convicted her of blasphemy and adultery. More on the adultery later.
Her country, Sudan, is one of many in the world that claim to have religious freedom, yet also make it a capital crime for someone to leave the Muslim faith. They say to the world, “We have religious freedom!” but what they mean by that is “you are free to worship in any religion you want, as long as Muslims don’t leave the Islamic religion.” Thus they can look the human rights groups in the eye and declare their love for personal freedom, as long as the Western world respects their right for Islamic tradition. Which, by the way, includes the death sentence for any Muslims that convert to Christianity.
This is the mess that Meriam found herself in when her brother reported her. In the eyes of Islam she is a Muslim—never mind the fact that she doesn’t practice, believe, or follow Islam in anyway—thus it is a crime for her to claim Christ. The exact crime is “Apostasy,” punishable by death. Islam demonstrates its mercy toward women by declaring that a pregnant women sentenced to death for such a thing shall be spared until their child is weaned. Assuming her new baby survives child birth—hardly a sure thing, because the government says “for security reasons” she must give birth in prison—she likely has another year or two to live.
Under Islamic law not only is it a crime to leave the Muslim religion, but it is also illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man (obviously the reverse is not true, or Meriam wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with). Since in the eyes of Islamic law she is Muslim, her marriage to her husband was declared void by the courts. Since she is pregnant, she is thereby guilty of adultery. For that she gets 100 lashes, and it is unlikely they will wait for the baby to be weaned before they carry out that part of the sentence.
Meriam is not alone. In Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, and other Islamic countries Christians are routinely arrested, beaten, and even martyred for no other reason than for embracing Jesus and rejecting the message of Mohammad. Yet these stories are hardly ever news. What makes Meriam different?
Simple: CNN picked up her story and ran with it. I have no idea why, but they did. Maybe it is because she is in jail with her 20-month old son, who is sick and denied medical care (again, for security reasons). Perhaps it is because her husband, Daniel, is in a wheel chair. He says he is totally dependent upon his wife to care for him, and doesn’t know what will happen to him now that she is gone. Maybe it is because of its proximity to the story of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls.
Why CNN chose this story to focus on we may never know. But the result of the press coverage has been a public relations row for Sudan. Other countries have pressured Sudan to find a diplomatic way to end Meriam’s imprisonment and spare her life.
Perhaps because of this push back, her trial court granted her what they described as a “merciful” option. They gave her 3 days to recant her faith in Christ. If she would just tell the court that this whole thing was a big misunderstanding, she and her son could go free. And this is plausible enough, isn’t it? She doesn’t really remember her father; how was she to know that she was a Muslim? Now that she does, she can simply apologize to the court, ask to delay the beatings until after she delivers her baby, and go home.
CNN reports that after three days, the judge brought her back to the court. In Diet-of-Worms style, a Sheik appealed to the judge to recognize, “how dangerous a crime like this is to Islam and the Islamic community.”
When it was her turn to speak, Meriam simply said, “I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian.”
I have no idea what kind of church she goes to. In Sudan there are Baptists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Orthodox believers. Whatever kind of Christian she is, she is also obviously the kind that would rather die than renounce her faith.
It is noteworthy that the Koran expressly allows people to artificially deny the Muslim faith for a brief period of time; if a Muslim was on trial and his only way to escape was to lie about his faith, Surat An-Nahl 16:106 would allow him to deny Islam for the day, to get his freedom and save his life.
The obvious question: what kind of religion values faith at gun-point? What kind of religion tells someone “if you leave, we will kill you and possibly your children?” Sudan’s government says that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, and that blasphemy laws are at the heart of what it means to be a Muslim nation. They may be right; after all, perhaps a dozen other Islamic countries have the same law. It is hardly unique to Islam though—remember that it was the Jewish court system that sentenced Jesus to die. Like Meriam, his crime was “blasphemy.”
Who knows how Meriam’s case will end? Its possible that international pressure will prevail, and that they will release her, and perhaps only expel her from the country. Its possible that the press will forget about this case, and two years from now she will be executed, as so many other Christians are: forgotten and anonymous.
Pray for Meriam and Daniel this week. Consider it a joy to intercede for someone who values faithfulness to Jesus above the limited freedoms this world has to offer.