(Full transcript of video at bottom.)
Three years ago today, a young Sudanese mother was freed from prison after narrowly escaping being hanged, first having been lashed 100 times for adultery. The delay on carrying out Mariam Ibrahim’s double sentence was due only to the fact that she was heavily pregnant: Islamic law (Sharia) required that she first give birth (to her daughter Maya) – while shackled to a prison bed.
Ms Ibrahim’s crime? She had held firm to the faith in which her Christian mother had brought her up – after divorce from her Muslim father when Mariam was six. But under Sudan’s interpretation of Sharia, a daughter’s religion is defined as that of her father: even if he’s largely absent from her life.
So when, in 2011, Ms Ibrahim married a fellow-Christian, Daniel Wani, critics – who claimed to be her father’s family – accused them both first of ‘adultery’, though they’d been married in church. After this false charge was dropped against Mr Wani, Ms Ibrahim was found guilty of ‘apostasy’ for turning her back on the faith of her father.
Her brutal fate brought her to global attention, helped by the fact that she was a woman, a doctor and that – again under Sudan’s Sharia – her toddler son Martin had to stay in prison with her. It also helped that her husband had dual US and South Sudanese citizenship.
Exactly six months after she was first detained – on Christmas Eve 2013 – Ms Ibrahim was freed, on 23 June 2014. Now living in the US, her first trip abroad came this week – to the European Parliament, to speak as someone directly affected by the blanket imposition of Sharia, which makes no exception for a country’s ethnic and religious diversity. As globalisation increases, cases such as Ms Ibrahim’s become more frequent, as the book ‘Identity Crisis’ by Jonathan Andrews makes clear.
Ms Ibrahim ended her conversation with World Watch Monitor’s Julia Bicknell by stressing that her problems are symptomatic of those currently faced by the Christian community in Sudan: the most current being the demolition of churches, an issue raised with its government by the EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ján Figeľ, when he visited in March. Then, the Minister for Religious Endowments had promised him a delay to demolition plans. However, since then he’s been replaced, at least two more churches have been demolished and the new Minister has not yet responded to Figeľ’s most recent letter of concern. These latest demolitions (both were of Sudan Church of Christ churches) have also prompted a letter from that denomination’s leaders to their government. Again there has been no response.
As Figeľ pointed out in the European Parliament meeting where he and Ms Ibrahim spoke, “What’s crucial here is that freedom of religion or belief is the issue… When it is restricted, then sooner or later other human rights and fundamental freedoms suffer the same fate.
“Human dignity is the most important, the crucial, priority value: human dignity for all and everywhere, as dignity is universal and does not depend on where one comes from, on whether one is religious, or a non-confessional humanist – we all share the same human dignity.
“Only a minority in our world of today enjoys freedom of religion or belief … and the tendency has worsened in recent years. In 22 countries there still is the death penalty for apostasy; and blasphemy is a criminal offense in 40 countries, punished in some of them with the death penalty.”
Ms Ibrahim reaffirmed Figeľ’s point: she spoke of how, when she was detained a second time at Khartoum airport as she finally tried to leave the country, an airport official tried to help her. He has now himself been forced to seek refuge in Europe: she said “though he can’t be named, he’s in this [European Parliament] room now, on his own journey [of exile from Sudan] all because, as a Muslim, he tried to help a Christian in an Islamic state”.
Transcript of video
Julia Bicknell: “I’m with Mariam Ibrahim. Mariam, your story touched a raw nerve around the world because you were a mother, you were a doctor, and also you were pregnant with your second child. You were under the most enormous pressure. Were you not tempted to renounce your Christian faith?”
Mariam Ibrahim: “We both [my husband Daniel and I] understand that we are at war, and we have to keep fighting, we don’t have to give up, we need to continue. The things that we saw in the jail, the court, and everything around, people need a voice, these other inmates in jail or inside the prison, the court.
“If I give up and I say, ‘OK I’m a Muslim and I have to follow Islam’ … If we want to continue our marriage, Daniel has to convert to Islam also. Then we’re going to both have 100 lashes because we were charged with adultery, and then have to wait until I give birth to the baby. I have to stay in jail, they have to keep me inside the prison until I give birth to the baby, and then I will have the 100 lashes and Daniel have the same thing, and then come to the court house for Islamic marriage. If we didn’t do that, we have to go in jail, stay in jail, I give birth to my daughter, receive my 100 lashes, I’m sentenced to death and all that.
“And after two years, they’re going to take [my son] Martin because, when Martin turns two and Daniel wants to take him – and I’m sure he would do that – the judge said he can’t give him to [Daniel] because they cancelled our marriage, and said it is not right. So the situation is that the child has to go to child services. [My daughter] Maya the same thing: when she becomes two, they have to do the same thing, they have to take her away and then we are sentenced to death. And then Daniel – they dropped his charge because his charge is adultery and they said he is a Christian, but they still consider me a Muslim.
“I know I am a Christian and I have a strong faith. I said ‘OK, if I die, it’s better’ – for what I thought about Islam, I cannot accept changing all my life, my family. Then my kids, what are they going to say if they grow up and know I did something like that for them? Because in Islam you don’t have a chance. If your mum and dad are Muslims, you have to grow up as a Muslim.
“I said, ‘This is about my children’. I said that ‘If I die, I will make sure that my kids have a better future, with their father’. It’s better to grow up in a situation like that than with Islamic law and all that stuff. My daughter would [then] have the same issues if she grew up and if her family are Christian. Even in my husband Daniel’s family, some people are Christian and some are Muslim. We are living in peace, but it’s about the system, the law we have.”
JB: “You grew up with an Orthodox Ethiopian mother and a Muslim father, and so that, technically, under Sudanese Sharia law, made you a Muslim. But you argued that your mother had brought you up and you were a Christian. Was that really difficult, that you had such an unusual case?”
MI: “I was born in a refugee camp. My mum was the one who settled in the refugee camp and my father was working as a driver, [of] a truck, to take people from the refugee camp to the city – some people [were] working at the market, and my mother was one of those people.
“…My mum was very beautiful and my father fell in love and they got married and they didn’t have a problem because she is a woman … but a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian.
“So they didn’t have a problem when they got married, but still he was trying to push her to accept Islam and this was one of the problems that they had in their lives, and they ended up with a divorce.”
JB: “And how old were you when they divorced?”
MI: “Six years old… And then we moved to the big city, to Gedaref [on border with Ethiopia].
JB: “And you qualified as a doctor…”
MI: “Yes, but I didn’t practise, I got married and then I had a family. After my mum passed away, even one of my priests used to tell me that Mariam … he supported me … I wanted to be a nun. But when I met Daniel…”
JB: “Was it love at first sight?”
MI: “… I’m friends with his sister. I’m very active at the church and I met his sister seven years before we got married. Daniel used to stay, to come just on holiday, to visit the family, but I used to talk with him, to discuss through Skype or on the phone.”
JB: “And then you met him?”
MI: “We talked about that, even before he [came] to Sudan. And that was the reason why he [came] to Sudan in 2011.”
JB: “Did you think that marrying Daniel would give you all these problems later?”
MI: “It never came to my mind that something like that would happen. Even when I went to get a birth certificate for Martin, they did ask me but they didn’t stop me. The case started with [being accused of] adultery, for both of us, me and Daniel, and we spent one day in jail together. Martin at the time was only seven months old, he was crawling.”
“…We were shocked, we didn’t know what was going on. We thought, ‘OK, we can do this, we are safe, we didn’t do anything wrong, we can get through this, we can do that.’ But [the problem was] the system, the law. And in the end I had to go to prison, on Christmas Eve.”
JB: “And you spent three days in jail at Christmas 2013 on the charge of adultery, still?”
MI: “Adultery, [yes]. My family requested the court to take me to the doctor, they said I had mental issues, and the judge said that if the doctor said ‘yes’, [that] I had something like [that]… ‘I’m going to drop the charge and she can go to the hospital’. And I went to the hospital and I had nothing [wrong], and I was in good health, taking care of my husband, my son and I had a very happy life before I went to the prison and all this started… I was running a business, volunteering in my church….
“Even when it happened, I had to keep quiet, because if Daniel saw me breaking down, or crying…I had to stay strong so that when I was inside the prison he didn’t have to be worried about me or Martin. I know he was but I wanted to tell him it was going to be OK. I was just so blessed to have him around at that time.
“Then came the New Year’s holiday and they transferred me to the women’s prison. I spent one week in the small jail [there], sleeping on the floor, no visitors, even no bottle of water. You had to drink from the… I had to pay the guards so they could get me milk from the market.
“With but it was very hard. It was very hard. There were some times I thought, ‘I want to make sure that what’s inside me [is OK]’, sometimes when I felt the baby’s not moving. I thought there was something wrong but there was no way I could see the doctor. Daniel tried, he tried very hard. Before I was sentenced, he did… Even now I have many copies of his requests to the court; still now I’m keeping all that stuff, asking the reason why they can’t let me go out to see the doctor, asking the judge if I can go see the doctor. I wanted to have a family, one of my dreams was that I want to have 20 kids! But now, after I gave birth, I had some issues with my health.”
JB: “It must have been very incredibly hard for you?”
MI: “That time I was ready to accept anything, even if they told me, ‘Mariam, we are going to have you sentenced’. I stopped being shocked about [anything].
“But then I went to the office and they told me, ‘You are released’…
“They didn’t tell me, ‘You are released’. No, sorry… They were doing some paperwork and I asked one of the guards and she just told me, ‘You are released’. And I thought, OK and just kept quiet. And I didn’t say goodbye to another inmate. I was doing laundry for Martin… I just left [the clothes] there. I had to get my stuff quick, quick, quick and they asked me to bring one of the guards that I trust, so they can help me with the kids, carry Martin, and I was holding Maya, and then picked up the stuff. One of the guards went out, called the taxi, the taxi came inside the prison; they put all my stuff in.”
“When the prison guard called the taxi, they took the [driver’s] phone, they said ‘Go, drop her off and come back and pick up your phone’. And there was another police car following us.
“And from Omdurman to my house in Khartoum was 40-45 minutes. And we stopped in the middle…
“And I think I was wearing the same dress that all the people saw me in, and when we were on the way some people were saying, ‘Hey, look it’s Mariam,’ and I was waiting to go home, I wanted to go home, finally, sleep in my bed, make a meal for me and my husband, to take a shower!
“And all that didn’t happen… When we were halfway, they stopped me and asked me to go to a safe place because it’s not safe for me to go home, and they said, ‘You don’t have any place that you can go?’ Only my church. And I went to the church and the church welcomed me in and I had to stay there, and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to stay… No problem, just I have to tell Daniel’. And I took the phone and asked and said, ‘OK, I’m going to call him’, but they already had his number, they called him, and let him know, and he said: ‘Where’s Mariam?’, and Daniel… I think he already knew that when he got out of a meeting, one of the reporters or someone called him and let him know that Mariam was released, and they came so quick to see where I am, where Mariam is. And they went to the prison, and I did call them and said, ‘No, Mariam is here, she is safe at the church.’
“And after that I said, ‘I’m going to stay’. It didn’t come to my mind that I’d go to the US Embassy. I thought ‘I’m going to stay at the church. It’s safe here.’ And then they said, ‘This is going to be hard for the church to provide you with enough protection, and you have to go to the US Embassy’.
JB: “What do you think about what’s happening to Christians today in Sudan?
MI: “This is not something new, this is not just today. It’s happened before, a long time. We know there’s many places [where] churches have to change, they’re building another building, they’re reselling the church land, the schools, the Christian schools.
“Just after one year from my release, another two pastors, Peter Yen [and Yat Michael], the same case… They’re arresting Christian girls, Christian women, for making local wine, selling it … [or] if you’re not covering your head.
“It’s not just for the Christians… Even the Muslim people… any other religion; if you speak out against the government. …The journalists, there’s no freedom of speech … all these issues in Sudan.
JB: “So what would you say to the international community, now you’re free, now you’re able to speak on behalf of people that you’ve left behind? What are you saying?”
MI: “This is very important, people have to be aware of that. And even the diplomats … we have to speak to the [Sudan] government, they have to respect the law there. But these issues, we can’t hide [them], we can’t cover it up.
“You can’t say, ‘I respect’… like the Sudanese government: ‘We respect the freedom of religion’. They’re saying that, they keep saying that… The other day a representative at the UN Council [said] ‘We are respecting’… You can’t say that at the same time as you are arresting someone because he wrote an article against the government, or [a] Christian woman because she’s not wearing a headscarf, or all that stuff.”
JB: “The Sudanese government has banned the building of new churches, because it says since the independence of South Sudan, the number of Christians in the north, in Sudan itself, has decreased, so they don’t need new churches?”
MI: “No! Still there’s many thousands of Sudanese [Christians] living in Sudan. They will have to come for schools… There are [also Christian] people from the Nuba Mountains. The Christians are not just the South Sudanese people. I know they are [the majority], but after South Sudan became a different country, still there are many Christians [in Sudan].
“Even at the Christian schools – St Francis’ School, it’s a Christian school and it’s close to a church -between the church and a nun’s house. And you can hear the Quran inside the church because there are Muslim students there… they used to study at the school. But if you’re a Christian, you have to study Islam. If you don’t pass the exam, you can’t go to another grade.”
JB: “So you think it’s discrimination against Christians?”
MI: “Yes, discrimination. It’s all about the system. If you’re a Christian, we all study Islam. Every Christian in Sudan, if you don’t study in a Christian school, you have to study Islam, and the Quran. And I’m sure that if they find something good [during] this time, all the Christians can become Muslims!”