Lashed and imprisoned for her faith: one mother speaks out
Sudanese doctor Mariam Ibrahim wants the world to respond to freedom issues in her homeland
Mariam Ibrahim recently gave a lengthy interview and an edited version is below.
Three years ago, 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.
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.
Her brutal fate brought her to global attention…
So when, in 2011, 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, 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 – Ibrahim was freed, on 23 June 2014. Now living in the US, her first trip abroad came in late June. Ibrahim visited 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 Ibrahim’s become more frequent, as the book Identity Crisis by Jonathan Andrews makes clear.
Ibrahim stressed that her problems are symptomatic of those currently faced by the Christian community in Sudan.
At the end of the recent interview with World Watch Monitor’s Julia Bicknell [see below], Ibrahim stressed that her problems are symptomatic of those currently faced by the Christian community in Sudan. The most current one 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, and at least two more churches have been demolished. 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 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.”
Only a minority in our world of today enjoys freedom of religion or belief …” – Ján Figeľ
“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.”
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”.
EDITED VERSION OF MARIAM IBRAHIM INTERVIEW
Julia Bicknell: “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.”
“… 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?”
“… But a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian.” Mariam Ibrahim
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.
“… 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…”
“I had a very happy life before I went to the prison and all this started…” – Mariam Ibrahim
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….
“I spent one week in the small jail [there], sleeping on the floor, no visitors, even no bottle of water.” – Mariam Ibrahim
“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. I had to pay the guards so they could get me milk from the market.
“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, 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.”
“This is not something new, this is not just today.” – Mariam Ibrahim
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 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 … One of the guards went out, called the taxi, the taxi came inside the prison; they put all my stuff in …”
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.
“But these issues, we can’t hide [them], we can’t cover it up.” – Mariam Ibrahim
“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.”
World Watch Monitor, published with permission