Will Sudanese authorities free a woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce Christianity, or will Meriam Yehya Ibrahim lose her battle for religious freedom and remain locked inside a cell with her children on death row in Khartoum until a date is set for her execution?
Despite news reports indicating that 27-year-old Meriam Yehya Ibrahim would soon be released, a spokesman for Sudan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the mother of two, who gave birth to a baby girl on May 26 while on death row, will remain in prison. Baby Maya and her 20-month-old son, Martin, are with her. According to her husband, David Wani, only the court, not government authorities, can decide to release Ibrahim and an appeal has been filed by lawyers on her behalf.
The woman was found guilty of apostasy on May 11 for changing her faith after marrying a U.S. citizen, who is also Christian. She was given four days to convert to Islam, and when she refused, Ibrahim was sentenced to hang. The judge also said Ibrahim would be allowed to nurse her baby for two years before the sentence was carried out.
While Ibrahim was brought up by her mother as an Orthodox Christian, a Sudanese judge ruled earlier this month that she should be regarded as Muslim because that had been her father's faith. The court also annulled her marriage and sentenced her to 100 lashes for adultery because the union was not considered valid under Islamic law.
"Unfortunately, Meriam's story isn't that unique in much of the world," said the Rev. James Moos, a national officer of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and co-executive of Global Ministries, a shared ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "In fact, Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project reports that a shocking 5.3 billion people (76 percent of the world's population) live in countries where restrictions on religious freedom are 'high' or 'very high.'"
Abdullahi Alzareg, an under-secretary at the foreign ministry, said Sudan guaranteed religious freedom and was committed to protecting the woman. The Sudanese capitol, Khartoum, has been facing international condemnation over the death sentence.
"No particular belief system should be privileged above others," Moos continued. "Practitioners of all faiths, or of no faith, should be protected from discrimination and violence."
As international outrage grows, members of the U.S. Congress, and the British government – including both Prime Minister David Cameron and the Foreign Office, are pressuring the Sudanese government to do something to release Ibrahim and her children, U.S. citizens. But in Khartoum, the regime continues to pressure Ibrahim to renounce her Christian faith and convert to Islam.
Sudan has a majority Muslim population and Islamic law has been in force there since the 1980s.