WASHINGTON, May 31, 2014 — Sudanese authorities today announced they will free Dr. Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian woman sentenced to 100 lashes, then death by hanging for apostasy. Her crime was to marry a Christian man, U.S. Citizen Daniel Wani.
Ibrahim has been detained in Sudan since February. Incarcerated with her are her two-year old son, and now a new-born daughter, Maya, both U.S. citizens by birth.
Sudan’s under-secretary at the foreign ministry, Abdullah Alzareg has previously said that Sudan guarantees religious freedom, reinforcing Sudan’s commitment to protect Ibrahim.
Sudan has a majority Islamic population, and Islamic Law has been in place in the country since the 1980s.
Article 126 of Sudan’s Criminal Code states: “(1) Whoever propagates the renunciation of Islam or publicly renounces it by explicit words or an act of definitive indication is said to commit the offence of Riddah (apostasy).”
However, Article 38 of the Freedom of Creed and Worship in Sudan’s Bill of Rights says, “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance of rites or ceremonies, subject to requirements of law and public order; no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not believe in, nor to practice rites or services to which he/she does not voluntarily consent.”
Sudan’s constitution further protects the rights of non-Muslims.
The decision to release Dr. Ibrahim appears to have been motivated not by concerns about religious freedom, but by the massive international outcry against the sentence. Social media has buzzed with condemnation of the sentence, and several governments have lobbied Sudan to release the woman.
The United Kingdom was among those protesting the sentence. Mark Simmonds, the British Foreign Office’s Minister for Africa, says the British Government has increased pressure on the Sudanese government to release Ibrahim.
The White House and the U.S. State Department issued a statement against the sentence, saying, “We are deeply disturbed over the sentencing today of Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag to death by hanging for apostasy. We are also deeply concerned by the flogging sentence for adultery. We understand that the court sentence can be appealed.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf further said, “We continue to call upon the Government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion, a right which is enshrined in Sudan’s own 2005 Interim Constitution as well as international human rights law,” she added. “We call on the Sudanese legal authorities to approach this case with the compassion that is in keeping with the values of the Sudanese people.”
U.S. immigration law allows foreign citizens to apply for religious asylum under certain conditions. Foreign nationals can apply for protection in the United States if they have experienced religious persecution in their own country, including victimization due to religiously-motivated violence; unjust imprisonment for religious beliefs; inhumane treatment such as degradation, slavery or torture based on religious believes; or human rights violations.
However, the muted U.S. response has drawn considerable criticism, especially since Dr. Ibrahim’s husband, and her children, are American citizens.
No majority-Muslim countries spoke out against the sentence.
The high-profile sentence has reignited an intense debate over apostasy, or religious conversion. In many Islamic countries, renouncing Islam is punishable by death.
While international acceptance of Islam and respect for the Islamic faith is growing, Islamic tolerance of other religions appears to be shrinking.
According to a Pew Research Study last year, the majority of Muslims in Islamic countries say they support religious freedom. However, a majority also believes that those who leave Islam should be punished.
In Afghanistan, 78 percent of Muslims say anyone who gives up Islam should be executed. In Egypt and Pakistan, 64 percent of Muslims agree. A majority of Muslims in Malaysia, Jordan and the Palestinian territories also support death for converts.
Sudanese officials defended the sentence as appropriate and only backed down after a groundswell of international condemnation.
Such a reaction from the government is unsurprising. Sudan’s government has been killing its own people for years. Its president, Omar Al Bashir, is currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for murder, torture, rape, war crimes against a civilian population, and genocide.
With a president who supports genocide, and an international Muslim community mum on extreme penalties against religious freedom, it is unlikely laws on executing converts or non-Muslims will change any time soon.
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