Death sentence of Christian in Sudan shines light on religious persecution

When a pregnant Christian woman was condemned to death in Sudan for allegedly apostatizing from Islam, the shock and incredulity were felt worldwide. More than a month later, 27-year-old Mariam Yahya Ibrahim awaits hanging when she finishes weaning her newborn daughter in prison, leaving Christians and Muslims alike wondering how such a sentence could possibly be defended. 

“Though I can’t speak for all Muslims, I’m disappointed; the Koran says there’s no compulsion in religion,” said Sarah Bakhiet, a Sudanese Muslim studying in England. “It also says it’s up to God, not people, to judge those who turn away. Such court rulings don’t promote peace or mutual acceptance between faiths.”

Born to a Muslim father and Ethiopian Orthodox mother, Ibrahim was arrested in Khartoum in August when family members complained about her apostasy, which is banned under Sudan’s Sharia law. Although she insisted she had been raised a Christian, the court ruled she was a Muslim and imposed the death sentence when she refused to recant. And since she was married to a Christian, which is also prohibited under Sharia, it declared her guilty of adultery and sentenced her additionally to 100 lashes.

Organizations weigh in

The case was only the latest to spark worldwide condemnation, and Western governments and human rights groups responded accordingly, with the United Nations urging Sudan to respect religious freedom and U.S. senators demanding Ibrahim be offered political asylum. 

Sudan’s Catholic bishops’ conference condemned the sentence and appealed to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir against the “false charges.” So did the country’s Council of Churches, which includes Orthodox and Coptic Christians, as well as Anglicans, Methodists and evangelicals. The court’s draconian action violated religious liberty provisions in Sudan’s 2005 constitution, the Council protested, as well as the country’s obligations under international law. 

Churches abroad expressed outrage too. The president of the U.S. National Council of Churches, Jim Winkler, denounced Sudan’s “act of unspeakable religious intolerance and bigotry,” while the general secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, Olav Tveit, warned it contradicted the “close cooperation” between Christians and Muslims for justice and peace. 

Some observers have urged caution. Sudan’s 1991 Criminal Act also allows stoning for adultery, amputations for theft and prison for blasphemy, while hundreds of Muslim and Christian women are flogged annually for ill-defined crimes against public decency. But the last execution for apostasy occurred in 1985 when a man publicly criticized Islam. This makes it unlikely Ibrahim will be put to death, some observers say.

Ahmed Versi, editor of Muslim News, a London-based weekly, thinks the strength of foreign reactions have hurt rather than helped Ibrahim’s chances. There’s revulsion against the death sentence in the Muslim world as well, he points out, and the court’s ruling could well have been overturned already as a misunderstanding.

“But many are now also objecting to Western interference,” Versi told Our Sunday Visitor. “When people get involved from outside, it’s always used by those who don’t want change.”

Most, however, have viewed the death sentence as a crude instance of anti-Christian persecution, which appears to be worsening around the world.

History of persecution

Located in East Africa just south of Egypt, Sudan was Africa’s largest country until its mainly Christian southern provinces formed a separate state in July 2011 after two decades of war had left some 2.5 million dead. 

Article 38 of its constitution guarantees “freedom of religious creed and worship,” and declares “no person shall be coerced” into adopting any faith. However, moves were made to strengthen Sharia law — Islamic law based on the Koran — after South Sudan’s secession three years ago. 

With war still dragging on in Sudan’s eastern Darfur region, as well as in its South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, human rights groups highlight severe problems. In a 2014 report, the U.S. State Department said violations of religious freedom were now “systematic, ongoing and egregious,” as “government assistance” was used to favor Muslims and “induce conversion to Islam.” The report said Christians had been arrested for evangelizing, “suspected converts to Christianity” subjected to intimidation and torture, and the building of Christian churches made “difficult or impossible.” Several had been destroyed, including a Catholic church in Khartoum, torched in April 2012.

Catholics concerned

The Catholic Khartoum archdiocese, founded in 1974, has been headed for more than three decades by Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, who requested protection for the country’s surviving 1.5 million non-Muslims after the larger Archdiocese of Juba became part of South Sudan.

In an October 2011 pastoral message, the still-united bishops’ conference said the Church would “pray and work for the rule of law,” and “remain united” in its concern for “human dignity, the sanctity of human life, the common good, solidarity and basic human rights.”

Efforts are being made to ensure that pledge is followed up — not least by the Vatican’s new Dutch-born nuncio, Archbishop Hubertus van Megen.

But human rights groups say some 200 foreign Christians were deported in 2013 alone, often without legal procedures, while Bibles were confiscated and Christian communities vilified in the media.

Western governments have been under pressure to do more to combat anti-religious violence and discrimination worldwide, especially against Christians. In June 2013, Church leaders in Europe welcomed new guidelines from the European Union, directly linking EU aid for the first time to protection of religious rights.

In its new report, the U.S. State Department also called for normalized relations and the lifting of sanctions to be tied to Sudan’s observance of religious freedom. 

Whether such policies will work remains to be seen.

Mixed reaction 

Some observers warn of a growing conflict of values, as breakaway Islamic groups such as the London-based Ahmadiyya Muslim Community press for a more tolerant attitude to alleged apostates, and other Muslim religious leaders continue arguing for tight controls. Ahmed Versi, the Muslim News editor, is optimistic. The unorthodox Islam propagated by Ahmadiyya is rejected by most Muslims, he points out. But while the issue of apostasy is understood differently, most agree there’s no prescribed punishment for it in the Koran.

Apostasy was feared, Versi said, in the centuries when Muslim and Christian states were locked in conflict, and when changing faith also meant rejecting national loyalties.  

None of this applies to Muslims who convert to Christianity today, he points out; so the sentence against Mariam Ibrahim is clearly a misjudgment. 

Others are more alarmed. Sudan’s Council of Churches has demanded a review of all laws which compromise Christian freedoms and threaten “cohesion of the social fabric.” 

Meanwhile, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, has urged greater protection of women’s rights, citing parallel cases like that of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian sentenced to death in 2010 for alleged blasphemy.


For now, Mariam Ibrahim sits in Khartoum’s overcrowded women’s prison in Omdurman with her 20-month-old son, Martin, and newborn daughter, Maya, awaiting legal appeals.

Although no one appears to have been executed for apostasy so far under Sudan’s 1991 Criminal Act, according to human rights group Amnesty International, many people have been charged and only spared when they embraced Islam. Meanwhile, at least 21 executions were recorded in Sudan last year, in some cases involving opposition activists. 

Ibrahim’s husband, Daniel Wani, a U.S. citizen, warned their children may be taken away under Sudan’s repressive laws. But Sudan’s government has insisted it cannot intervene. Reports in late May said another Christian woman, Faiza Abdalla, had been charged with similar crimes. 

For young Sudanese Muslims like Sarah Bakhiet, the consternation is likely to continue. She thinks the international media fueled anti-Muslim feeling by failing to explain the strong divisions over Sharia that exist among Muslims everywhere. 

But she’s critical of her family’s country for presenting such a draconian image of Islam and doubts any Muslim friends and contemporaries would agree with its laws or its treatment of those who fall foul of them. 

“Of course, some young Muslims have strict principles, too, but we should remember Sharia is just a scholarly interpretation of Islam, not the faith itself,” the British-based student told Our Sunday Visitor. 

“I can’t imagine how it would feel if I was told in England I deserve to be killed because I’m not a Christian or not an atheist. As Muslims, we must appreciate the respect shown toward (ourselves), and show respect for others in turn.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.