The world was shaken by the news Thursday that a pregnant woman was sentenced to death for apostasy. Meriam Yehya Ibrahim is eight months pregnant, and because she will not renounce her Christian faith, she will be hanged soon after she gives birth. In Sudan, children must be raised the religion of their father. The government claims that because Ibrahim’s father was a Muslim, she must remain so and her marriage to a Christian man is invalid.
Meriam Yehya Ibrahim’s story resonates with everything I’ve experienced in my 10 years of working in Sudan and South Sudan. Ibrahim’s story reminds me of a dear friend of mine, Mary Achai, whose Muslim slave master set her on fire, along with three of her children, because she ran away when she learned that he planned to sell her 10-year-old daughter as a virgin bride. Although Mary is permanently marred inside and out, she survived the fire. Her 10-year-old daughter, toddler and nursing baby did not.
Rightly so, much emphasis is being given to the fact that Ibrahim’s sentence of death is in retaliation of her choice to be Christian. However, fundamentally, the crisis in Sudan is not one of religion but rather a complete disregard for the dignity of life, especially female life.
I know Muslim women in South Sudan who the Islamic Janjaweed raped with sticks as they mocked, “This is so you cannot make black babies.” I know men who’ve been beaten, had their teeth knocked out and forced to swallow them and had limbs hacked off as they watched their wives and children dragged behind the tail of a horse into slavery because their skin was black instead of the beautiful bronze color of their Arab-descendant fellow countrymen. I know a beautiful young schoolteacher whose father forced her to leave her job to marry a man who already had four wives so that he could garner a few more cows. I’ve sat through bomb blitzes targeted at the indigenous people of the Nuba Mountains, which is largely Islamic, simply because they are black and yet dare to proclaim their right to life, liberty and the use of their homeland’s natural resources.
The depravity of the Sudanese government extends far beyond religion and deep into the heart of humanity. A people will not truly have freedom of religion unless it is built upon a foundation of the sanctity of life.
I find myself cheering for Ibrahim as a thundercloud of hope, proclaiming “Life is worth dying for.” Mohamed Jar Elnabi, her attorney, echoes the sonorous claps of Ibrahim’s life as he endures death threats, social castigation, and financial hardship for defending her.
From half a world away, it is tempting to turn our faces away from Ibrahim and Elnabi, but in so doing we would be turning our backs upon our own human dignity. There may be no financial incentive to pursue the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who sets the pace for this human debasement and who the International Criminal Court has indicted for war crimes against the indigenous people of Sudan; in fact, it would cost us something. But I find myself wondering what cost we pay by not demanding the pursuit of justice beyond our political or personal gain.
To date, the embassies of Britain, the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands have called on Sudan to respect Ibrahim’s right to change her faith. Isn’t this woman’s life, and the principle for which she is willing to lay it down, worth more than a “call”?
Kimberly L. Smith is the president and co-founder of Make Way Partners, the only indigenously operated relief organization providing orphan care and anti-trafficking efforts in the Sudan and South Sudan. Smith has been serving alongside the Sudanese people for 10 years. Make Way Partners currently provides complete care to 1,100 orphans and employs 300 Sudanese, many of whom are former victims of sex trafficking. Smith is also the author of the award-winning book Passport through Darkness, which chronicles much of her experience in the Sudans. For more information on Kimberly L. Smith and Make Way Partners, please visit www.makewaypartners.org.