In a prison in Khartoum, a dusty city on the banks of the ancient Nile in the African nation of Sudan, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim waits.
She is not alone in her confinement. Her son is with her. He is 20 months old. Her daughter is there, too. She was born in that prison one week ago. Together with their 27-year old mother, they wait. Wait for her deliverance, wait for her execution by hanging. There is no middle ground.
Ibrahim stands convicted of apostasy; she renounced Islam and became a Christian. According to Ibrahim — and the speaker of the Sudanese Parliament disputes this — she was raised a Christian after her father, a Muslim, abandoned the family when she was 6. Under Sudanese law, anyone whose father was a Muslim is considered a Muslim. Converting from Islam is against the law, and Muslim women are forbidden from marrying outside their faith.
Ibrahim’s “crimes” against that code were apparently reported by her own brother. She was tried and ordered to disavow her faith by May 15. But she refused to do so, and for that they gave her the death penalty.
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Before she dies, she is to be whipped 100 lashes, the court having also found her guilty of adultery. This, for having sexual relations with her husband, Daniel Wani, a Sudanese Christian who has U.S. citizenship.
Her death, thank God, is not imminent. Ibrahim’s lawyer is appealing her sentence. And the court has given her two years to nurse and wean her daughter before it is carried out.
So Ibrahim waits. Outraged governments have urged Sudan not to do this evil thing. Petition drives have netted 650,000 signatures in the same cause. So, like Ibrahim herself, the world waits.
Martin Luther King Jr. defined faith as “taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” But in practical terms, faith has less to do with hope and assurance and the courage to take steps in the dark than with justifying just this kind of theological bullying. Can faith truly be faith if it’s imposed by force or threat of violence?
Unfortunately, many of those who claim to be faith’s most zealous defenders do not trust what they profess to believe, have no confidence that its appeal is strong enough that people will come to it and stay with it by the free movement of their hearts. They insult their own religions by suggesting people must be held to them and shielded from other beliefs by government and/or by violence.
What they model is not faith but fear, not the still small voice that compels footsteps on unseen stairs, but the loud, shrill outcry of cowards whose belief is so fragile as to totter at the first gust of contradiction, so frail as to require the enforcement of laws.
Meriam Ibrahim could have been free — perhaps still could be free — with a few simple words: Jesus is not Lord. She wouldn’t even have to mean it. Just mouth the words and get out. Surely, you think, Jesus himself would understand if she did.
But she won’t. Laws don’t give faith and laws can’t take it away.
To reach Leonard Pitts Jr., email firstname.lastname@example.org.