The stories of the martyrs who have gone to their deaths in the name of Christianity are as old as Christianity itself. It can be tempting, therefore, to think of those in history who have died for their religious beliefs as living “back then” or in another, more barbaric, time.
But Mariam Ibrahim reminds us, sadly, that this is far from the truth. Locked up in a Sudanese prison, the 27-year-old woman is on death row for refusing to renounce her Christian faith and convert to Islam. Ibrahim has every reason to want to live. She is married to a loving husband; she has a 20-month-old son; and, only last month — her legs still shackled in chains — she gave birth to a baby girl.
Pressure for Ibrahim’s release from the international community has been strong, but while the Sudanese government has hinted at releasing her, it has not yet done so.
What makes Ibrahim’s story so tragic, though, is that it’s far from being an isolated case. In “The Global War on Christians,” published last fall, John Allen states that since the time of Jesus, the world has seen 70 million Christian martyrs — and fully 50 percent of those have lived in the 20th century.
In fact, “More Christians were killed because of their faith in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined,” Allen writes.
What makes Mariam Ibrahim’s story so tragic is that it’s far from being an isolated case.
He also includes the statistic that Christians have been the target of 80 percent of all religious discrimination in 139 countries around the world. Attacks on Christians jumped 309 percent in seven years and more than 100 million have been persecuted. But despite those numbers, it can be difficult for those not faced with persecution in daily life to grasp the sheer enormity of the suffering. Pope Francis, in several instances, has attempted to draw the world’s attention to the plight of Christians. “There are many brothers and sisters nowadays who bear witness to Jesus and are persecuted,” the pope said during a daily homily in March. “Some cannot even carry around a Bible. ... They can’t wear a crucifix.”
With the advent of the contraception mandate interwoven with the Affordable Care Act, religious liberty efforts have been a cornerstone of the agenda of the U.S. bishops for the last several years — both at home and abroad.
“We bishops, as shepherds of one of the most richly blessed communities of faith on the planet, as pastors who have spoken with enthusiastic unity in defense of our own religious freedom, must become advocates and champions for these Christians whose lives hang in the balance, as we dare not allow our laudable battles over religious freedom at home to obscure the actual violence being inflicted on Christians elsewhere,” outgoing USCCB president Cardinal Timothy Dolan told a gathering of fellow bishops last November.
That’s why it’s vital that we pay attention to Mariam Ibrahim’s story. She puts a modern-day face to what it means to be a martyr and to stand up for your faith until the point of death. Her two young children, incarcerated with her, only make it all the more critical that she be freed soon.
So here’s our invitation: Mobilize your parish, your families, your college roommates, your youth groups or your senior center. Write letters, sign petitions and include Ibrahim and her family in your prayers (see Page 6 for details). In these small ways, we, too, defend our Christian faith.
And in doing so, we answer Pope Francis’ challenge as to whether or not, like Ibrahim, “we have within us the desire to be courageous in bearing witness to Jesus.”
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor