As Sudan's Most Infamous Victim of Persecution Makes Her Way to Freedom, Thousands More Remain in Sudan
Cameron Thomas, Regional Manager for Africa
International Christian Concern
With wide smiles, Meriam Ibrahim and her family shook hands with Pope Francis, posed for photographs, and-for the first time in months-laughed as free people. Thursday, relief swept over millions as international press cables wired reports of an Italian aircraft flying, through the dark of night, from Khartoum to Rome.
For the family on board: from oppression, to freedom.
A 27-year-old mother of two and wife to an American citizen, Meriam was imprisoned in February, sentenced to death for her Christian faith in May, rearrested a day after her court-ordered release and acquittal in June, and finally set free Wednesday of last week. For everyone involved, from Meriam and her family, to the religious freedom and human rights advocates striving for Meriam's freedom, to the international press covering their case, it was a summer of high and lows.
In the wake of one of the most widely-publicized Christian persecution cases ever, many questions remain: why has the United States (U.S.) still not recognized the citizenship of Meriam's two children, Martin and Maya? Why were the Ibrahims released into the custody of the Italian government, and not that of the U.S.? And why did neither Secretary of State Kerry nor President Obama speak Meriam's name publicly until after she was safely in Rome?
In November of 2013, Meriam's husband Daniel Wani, a South Sudanese Christian with U.S. citizenship, approached the U.S. embassy in Khartoum to request documentation of his son, Martin's, citizenship. Not only was that request denied, possibly in violation of U.S. immigration law (Sec. 301 of the Immigration and Nationality Act), Daniel claims he was treated with utter disrespect. In a phone conversation with ICC, Daniel said that despite having "provided wedding documents and the baby's birth certificate," the embassy's "doors were closed in his face."
Three months later, Martin-just 18-months-old at the time-was imprisoned with his mother for 126 days.
In a conversation with CNN in May, the Ibrahims' legal defense lamented Martin's imprisonment, saying, "he is very affected from being trapped inside a prison from such a young age."
To be clear, Martin should never have been imprisoned for his mother's faith. Nowhere should conversion to or from any religion be considered criminal. And so while an investigation into whether or not the U.S. embassy in Khartoum violated immigration laws should be launched-with full recognition of the consequences of its decision to deny Martin his rightful citizenship-Sudan's refusal to recognize the human right to free religious practice must be condemned as solely responsible for the Ibrahims' plight.
While the scourge of international outcry and government sanctions should continue to be levied against Sudan for sentencing a pregnant mother to death for her Christian faith, the decision by the Khartoum Court of Appeals to release and acquit Meriam should be applauded. Similarly, many thanks must be given to the Ibrahims' legal defense, every member of which has received a threat against his life for defending religious freedom over the application of Sharia law.
Representative of many others in and beyond Khartoum, the Ibrahims' legal defense in many ways exemplifies the struggle for religious freedom in increasingly closed societies. Following South Sudan's succession in 2011, President Hassan Omar al-Bashir-indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005-pledged to transform Sudan into a "purely Islamic" society. In the years since, the Sudanese regime has forcibly closed Bible schools, demolished churches, and, as of this month, placed a moratorium on the construction of all new churches.
And yet, in spite of a global spotlight having been cast on his commission of gross human rights abuses against his own people, al-Bashir is pursuing his policies of Islamization and Arabization with a renewed vigor: state-sponsored bomb raids continue to decimate the peoples of the Nuba Mountains as state-backed proxy-militias massacre civilians in Blue Nile and South Korofan states; Christians and other religious minorities are subjected to the dictates of Sharia law and relegated to the bottom of Sudanese society as second-class citizens; and the United Nations and other international monitors continue to be denied access to document the many systemic human rights and religious freedom abuses the Sudanese people face at the hands of their government.
Regrettably, Meriam Ibrahim is but one of far too many suffering in Sudan for the expression of their faith, or the color of their skin.
In a recent hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Senior Policy Advisor for the Enough Project, Omer Ismail, testified that "many Sudanese Christians complain about discrimination in getting jobs or in the workplace...in addition to a general atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance." Ismail went on to conclude that in the hands of "the genocidal regime in Khartoum...the fate of close to a million Muslims, Christians and practitioners of indigenous religions and other faiths is in jeopardy."
In the wake of Meriam's release, acquittal and long-overdue departure from Sudan, the world must continue to spotlight the oppression of the Sudanese people. Those who stood up and spoke out for Meriam must also speak out for the tens of thousands of Christians still suffering for their faith in and beyond Khartoum. Human rights and faith-based organizations have to continue to document abuses on the basis religious preference or ethnic identity, and to provide critical aid. And the coalition of governments and international bodies that publicly condemned the fate of Meriam Ibrahim must utilize every resource to bring Sudan in-line with international standards for human rights and religious freedom.
For interviews, contact Cameron Thomas, Regional Manager for Africa: RM-Africa@persecution.org
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